Collections at the
Museum of Ethnography

The Museum of Ethnography has in its care collections from Africa, the double continent of America, Asia, the Arctic, Australia and Oceania as well as Europe. The collections include not just objects but also a large number of photographs, books and archive materials.

Object collections

The Museum of Ethnography has at its disposition nearly 220,000 objects distributed across around 3,300 collections from all over the world, most of them from outside of Europe.

The origins of the Museum date back to year 1739 when the Royal Academy of Sciences was founded. The earliest collections where thus introduced during the first half of the 18th century. Particularly important are the collections brought home by the disciples of Linnaeus a few decades later. The museum itself was instituted in year 1900. Since 1999, the Museum of Ethnography/Etnografiska museet has together with the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities/Medelhavsmuseet and the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities/Östasiatiska museet in Stockholm and the Museum of World Culture/Världskulturmuseet in Gothenburg been part of the Swedish National Museums of World Culture.

These collections are our national property. They must be preserved in perpetuity and are therefore handled with utmost care, understanding and respect. Objects are made available not only for exhibitions but also for visual presentations, individual loans and research purposes.

Objects are bearers of memories

The history of objects is often created by others than those who first made and used them. Collectors, ethnographers, historians, art lovers and tourists collect items and as such, give them new contexts. As a result, the history of the objects also becomes the history of their collectors. A shield from the northwest of Kenya hanging on the wall at the home of an English officer says as much about the colonial conquest policies as about the feuds between the Pokot and Turkana people. Objects are bearers of memories and can evoke a world of images, sounds, smells and tastes – just like Madeleine cakes.

Objects as bearers of culture

Many objects are bearers of culture, not just for individuals but also for entire groups of people and may be a vital source of identity. Greece is making continuous demands on the British Museum to repatriate the Parthenon frieze while the United Kingdom claims that this is now part of a national cultural heritage and hence, London is its rightful home.

Repatriation?

The Museum of Ethnography has returned a number of objects to their countries of origin. However, it is also the opinion of the Museum that it has both a right and responsibility to preserve and put on display its collections for the general public to enjoy. The objects not only tell of life in for example Samarkand, Timbuktu or Tahiti but also of how we relate to one another throughout the world. We have indeed the right to look after, interpret and exhibit the cultural treasures of other people. After all, the general concept of museums of ethnography is not for everyone in the world to cling to their own culture – our identity is forever developing and evolving. In this sense of rootlessness, we are all equal.