Museum Europäischer Kulturen: Provenance Research Project on Sámic Collection Starting in December 2022

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

The Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK) houses one of the most significant collections of Sámi artefacts outside of Northern Europe. Now, this collection is to be systematically investigated. For a project that is funded by the German Lost Art Foundation, the museum will look into the provenance of approximately 1,000 objects. The research will be conducted in close collaboration with Sámi cooperation partners. This marks the first time that Sámi artefacts held by a museum outside of Northern Europe will be the focus of a long-term provenance research project, which draws in multiple perspectives.

Starting on 1 December 2022, the collection will be examined in collaboration with Sámi researchers, artists and other representatives of Sámi communities for a designated project funded by the German Lost Art Foundation. The project sets out to generate and collect data through studying the objects and from its (former) users, whilst at the same time establishing an international network. Doing so, the project aims to set an example for further provenance research of Sámi artefacts in collections held in Germany, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The two-year project will take shape in close cooperation with the Siida Sámi Museum (Aanaar/Anár/Inari, Finland), the Ájtte-Museum (Jåhkåmåhke/Dálvvadis/Jokkmokk, Sweden) and Dávvirat Duiskkas (Project “Sámi collections in German museums”) of the Norwegian Museums Association.

The Sámic Collection at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen

The collection of Sámi objects at the MEK comprises roughly 1,000 objects, which are largely categorised as objects of everyday culture and crafts. Additionally, the museum holds drawings, copperplate engravings, paintings and approximately 670 historical photographs. Amongst the oldest objects in the collection are two shaman drums (goavdát/ gievrieh). For many Sámi people, such drums carry great spiritual and cultural significance. The historical confiscation and burning of these drums as part of the imposition of Christianity now serves as a symbol of the colonisation of Sápmi, and thus, the beginning of paternalism and oppression.

Apart from these drums and several other significant objects, so far only few of the Sámi objects in the collection of the MEK have been extensively researched. Its documentation is currently still incomplete. Many of the names and descriptions date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. Indigenous terminologies, as well as object usages are generally missing, and the geographical references are often incorrect or vague. The provenance of many of these objects – including the convoluted paths via which the objects came to be part of the collection – has not been investigated.

In recent years, provenance research on colonial collections of ethnological museums has gained increased public attention. However, public debate in this context is largely concerned with formerly colonised areas of the so-called Global South. In the field of postcolonial research, the oppression of the Sámi has been examined as part of ʺNordic colonialism”. Thus far, however, this discussion has only played a marginal role in public perception.

Elisabeth Tietmeyer, director of the MEK

The majority of the Sámi objects in the MEK’s collection were collected during the inaugural phase of ethnological museums at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. These objects and their collection and research history, therefore, are defined by the context of non-European ethnological collections and their problematic origin. The indigenous Sámi communities understand this period as the height of inner-European colonialism. This involved oppression of the Sámi people and their culture by the majority societies within the northern regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of the Russian Federation.