The Asian Collections

The first known Swedish travels eastward to Asia took place more than a thousand years ago, laying open new worlds to an emerging Swedish nation. Based on recorded history and tales, runic stones and objects from faraway countries, we can today reconstruct the travels made by the Vikings across Russia to the countries around and almost certainly beyond the Caspian Sea.

During the early Middle Ages, pilgrims began travelling to holy locations in Palestine and the first diplomatic contacts with Russia, Turkey and Persia where made under the reign of King Gustav Vasa. King Karl XII's military campaigns to the east saw fellow countrymen being sent into the deepest of Siberia and down towards the Near East. The disciples of Linnaeus where sent out into the world to record and report back to their teacher what they had found. Their ethnographic collections can today be found at the Etnografiska museet/Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. The Swedish Levant Company (Levantiska Kompaniet) brought the Swedes to the east coasts of the Mediterranean Sea while the East Asiatic Company made China and the countries along the sea route to China better known in Sweden. Goods and objects were brought back to royal courts, noble houses and bourgeois homes – and ultimately to the museums of the 19th and 20th centuries – this was the era of scientists, explorers, world exhibitions and circumnavigations. Exhibitions on the continent showcased colonial dominions in distant parts of the world, engendering a desire to create similar exhibitions and eventually, a museum of ethnography here in Sweden. The expeditions of Eugenie, Vega and Vanadis to Asia as those of Sven Hedin and his followers have all contributed to the museum collections of today. Missionary regions were established in Russia, the Caucasus, Persia, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, China and India, the extensive ethnographic collections of which are now in the care of the this museum.

Following industrialisation, Swedish businesses, products and entrepreneurs began spreading across Asia. Swedes were guarding lighthouses, regulating rivers and managing quarantines in China. Swedes were also establishing trading houses in Japan, managing plantations in Ceylon and on the Malay Peninsula, building railways in Turkey and China, designing dams in Pakistan and calculating water supplies in Rangoon (Yangon). Objects were often brought back to Sweden as gifts or memorabilia and are today a reminder of how the big wide world gradually became integrated with our own little world.

1,207 of the 3,300 collections found at this museum consist entirely or partly of materials from Asia including Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. The exact number of objects can only be determined by way of a digital inventory and listing but is estimated to around 75,000. The collections originate from Turkey in the west to Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia in the east and from the Siberian Arctic coast in the north, across the deserts of Central Asia, to Sri Lanka in the south.