Saturday, January 2, 2016

Repatriating the Sami Cultural Heritage in Norway

Folk Dance Troupe from Setesdal at Folkemuseum

 Just outside Oslo, on the island of Bygdøy, stands the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, the Norsk Folkemuseum. Founded in 1894 to collect, preserve, and display all manner of Norwegian domestic items, from clothing to butter churns, the grounds also contain dozens of buildings from every part of Norway: original houses, barns, and churches, from the humble to the grand, disassembled and reconstructed and now scrupulously maintained. It’s the largest open-air museum in Norway and one of the earliest in the world. Here (especially on a warm summer’s day) it’s lovely to stroll among the mountain farm seters and stave churches, set among meadows and birch trees. The Folkemuseum also houses its collections, some of which go back to the 1500s, indoors in climate-controlled rooms. 

Norsk Folkemuseum
 Artifacts collected from the Sami people in Norway weren’t part of the original scheme for the museum. Their clothing and objects of daily use were instead the nucleus of the University of Oslo’s Ethnographic Museum, displayed with artifacts from people around the world. Not until 1951 was the Sami collection transferred to the Folkemuseum “with the aim of placing the Sami on a more equal footing with other Norwegian citizens.” The assemblage of 2600 objects was augmented by further collecting, not only of objects but of photographs and audio recordings of the Sami language and joiks. Today the collection consists of some 4500 catalog numbers.

That collection is about to be halved. Since the 1970s, when the Sami began to organize politically in a more confrontative manner than before, relations between the Norwegian state and its Sami citizens have shifted considerably. The aims of the Sami, to be regarded as an indigenous people with legal and moral rights to land, language, and cultural heritage, have been widely debated in Norway, but have resulted in a number of reforms and new initiatives. Along with the establishment of Sami museums and cultural centers around the country came discussions of repatriating Sami artifacts. These discussions weren’t limited to Norway—it’s been a subject of great interest in other Nordic countries with a Sami minority as well as internationally—but Norway has moved ahead now with a concrete plan to divide its collection, with 50% to remain at the Folkemuseum and 50% to be returned, with full ownership rights, to the six Sami museums, depending on the geographic origin of the objects. 

Árran Lule Sami Center
The process of selecting the objects began in late 2015 and will continue throughout 2016. In some cases, the transfer depends on upgrading facilities at the Sami museums and dealing with problems associated with earlier preservation techniques, which included the use of toxic substances and pesticides. The Norwegian state will be funding most of the project, “in accordance with the country’s obligations towards the Sami as in indigenous people.” The project is meant to be completed in 2017.

The project is called Bååstede, which means “return” in the South Sami language. 

The six Sami Museums in Norway: 


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