People of the World in Stockholm’s Ethnographic Museum

Ethnographic Museum, Etnografiska Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

What is interesting about going to Ethnographic Museums in different countries is that they all have a slightly different emphasis: some, like the Museum of Culture in Basel, have a lot of objects from Papua New Guinea; the Ethnographic Museum in Zurich has an extraordinary Chinese collection.  Each reflects the interests of the people who have donated and contributed to the museum and that is quite an interesting thing in itself.  The Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm showcases the individual collecting interests of the Swedes who subsequently donated to the museum – and what a broad range of interests they had.

Ethnographic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

The museum opened in 1900 as a result of a recognition that there needed to be a centralised ethnographic collection in the country which could look after the objects that were brought back to Sweden from the 18th to the 20th centuries.  The collection of the now-controversial Sven Hedin and countless private donations by missionaries, diplomats and travellers have expanded the museum’s collection, so that they have a really fascinating and broad range of objects on show.

If I’d had more time, and if I could understand Swedish and make the whole experience easier, I think I’d have gained a lot out of the displays which highlighted the individual collections of explorers and donors.  The history behind the objects is sometimes more fascinating that the object itself!

What is also quite interesting is that on their website they talk about the repatriation of objects.  Ethnographic collections often contain objects of a sensitive nature – religious or family relics whose removal can be regarded as a cultural loss or, at worst, as a violation.  The museum has actually returned certain objects to their countries of origin, when the circumstances were deemed appropriate, but states that the responsibility of the museum is to preserve and display collections so that we can all enjoy them – so we can understand and appreciate each other.  Hear, hear.

With the World in a Backpack

The first gallery looks at a range of subjects within the theme of the collectors that assembled what we see at the museum today.  I think I would have appreciated this section more if I spoke Swedish because trying to find the English explanations was sometimes more trouble than it was worth.

The Storage – An Ethnographic Treasury

The Storage exhibition was perhaps the most fun, because all these fascinating objects were stacked everywhere.  There was an exciting air of exploration and discovery, although it was a shame that some really interesting looking objects were places too high or too low to really be seen properly.  Still, it’s nice that they’re on display at all, and not locked away.

Art of Benin and The Missionary Exhibition 1907

The Benin collection has some fine examples of bronzes that were donated to the museum by a German professor, Hans Meyer.  There were also some objects from the Congo, centred around an exhibition that was held in Sweden in 1907.

Native Americans

I knew that the museum had a good collection of objects from North America, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how interesting the exhibition was.  They had quite a few more recently produced objects which was great because they show that the traditions and skills are still going strong.

Japan and Self-Image

Quite a small exhibition on Japan, which had some beautiful clothes from the Ainu people of the north.  The Ainu have a very strong and unique culture that is very different from the rest of the country.  There are also some very attractive Noh masks, and samurai armour.

‘Indigenous People in Three Climates’ Exhibition

A topical exhibition, looking at the way changes in the climate impact people living in Australia, the Amazon and the Arctic, wasn’t as interesting as it promised to be – but it was apparently aimed more at school groups as a way of initiating conversation.

So In Summary

I found the collection in the museum vastly more fascinating that I expected, and we were there for longer than we were supposed to be.  If we’d had more time, or if we were staying in Stockholm for longer, I can see that this would be a good museum to keep popping into, because each time you’d probably find something new to interest you.

The only problem I had was that the tags by the objects were in Swedish so for the English information you had to use little booklets.  Often it took quite some time to work out which tag applied to the object – and sometimes I was utterly clueless as to what I was actually looking at.  This was less of a problem with the Storage exhibition, which used a tablet for information, but even then there were certain objects that had no information at all in English.  The best areas were those on Japan and the Native Americans, because the information was actually printed on the tags next to the Swedish.

Further Information

The museum is free to enter.  A bargain – which means you can spend money in their excellent little gift shop.

The museum has a good little website in English: www.varldskulturmuseerna.se

There are regular events and workshops hosted by the museum for adults and children, which is worth checking out if you’re in town.  You may also want to time your trip with the opening hours of the Japanese Tea House.  We couldn’t make it, but I wish we had.

How To Get There

The museum is a little way out of the centre of Stockholm, but is easily accessible by public transport.   It is one of a group of museums which are in a museum park and so while you’re there, you can also visit the National Museum of Science and Technology, the Police Museum and the Maritime Museum.

The transport information is available here: www.sl.se

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Ethnographic Museum

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Ethnographic Museum 59.332724, 18.120747

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