Collecting Sápmi: Early Modern Globalization of Sámi Material Culture and Contemporary Sámi Cultural Heritage

A five-year research program financed by the Swedish Research Council, 2014–2018

Project leader: Jonas M Nordin (Historiska museet, Stockholm/Uppsala University)

Participants: Carl-Gösta Ojala (Uppsala University), Linda Andersson Burnett (Linnaeus University, Växjö Sweden), Birgitta Fossum (Saemien Sijte – South Sámi Museum, Snåsa Norway) and Vesa-Pekka Herva (University of Oulu, Finland)

During the seventeenth century, Swedish scientists, aristocrats, kings and queens started collecting Sámi objects. Parallel to this, researchers began, mainly in Uppsala, studying, describing and depicting the Sámi people and Sámi culture. The Swedish government had colonial ambitions, and a will to rule over the people of the north. This produced a need to understand the new subjects. The Sámi would be induced, or if necessary, forced to abandon their own religion and convert to Christianity. They were also supposed to adapt to a new economic system and make way for new settlers.

Collecting Sámi objects and making descriptions of Sámi identity, material culture, and religion were not only part of a national project to control the Sámi people. The collecting and describing were also part of a general European colonial ideology and were related to other European countries’ policies conducted in Africa and America during the same period.

In Sweden, as well as in Denmark/Norway, Sámi objects were collected, often under coercion. The objects were brought to Uppsala, Stockholm or Copenhagen, where they were incorporated into collections. In several cases it is known that the objects came to travel further as gifts or commodities to collectors in the Atlantic World, in London, Paris, Rome or Vienna.

Collecting Sápmi has the material culture as its principal object of study. The aim is to identify how the collecting was undertaken, what was gathered and where the objects ended up. Moreover the aim is to show that Seventeenth and Eighteenth century collecting of Sámi objects and the dissemination of these objects played a pivotal role both for Sámi identity as well as the Eurocentric understanding of Sámi culture. The project has three main research questions: Why did Europeans collect Sámi objects during the early modern period? What role did the Sámi material culture have in relation to collections from other parts of the world? What is the impact of the early modern collecting on Sámi identity and culture today?

The Sámi objects and the descriptions of the Sámi will be analyzed through an actor-network theory inspired approach. In this context it means that the Sámi objects and the representations of the Sámi by scientists, missionaries, clergymen, collectors and others are understood as part of the same interconnected networks. The actors in the networks were not only collectors as Johannes Schefferus, Charles XI of Sweden, Olle Worms in Denmark or Hans Sloane in England. The akkjas, antler or silver spoons, the ceremonial drums, as well as live reindeers, the museum buildings and the depictions were also active components in these networks.

The research program is multidisciplinary and the research team consists of archaeologists, historical archaeologists and historians from Finland, Norway, Scotland and Sweden with knowledge of both the Nordic countries and the British Isles. The research team is based in universities, as well as in museums in the different countries. This provides a unique combination of theoretical skill and empirical experience of the studied source materials and related fields of research.

The program consists of five work packages: First, an international database of early modern Sámi objects. Secondly: A study of the intellectual environment at Uppsala University with scholars such as Johannes Schefferus and Olaus Rudbeck in the second half of the Seventeenth century and how they constructed understandings of Sápmi. Thirdly: A study of the collecting of Sámi material culture by the College of Antiquities (Antikvitetskollegium), which was the predecessor to the Swedish History Museum, the National Museum and the Nordic Museum. Fourthly: A study of the dissemination of Sámi objects from Sweden to England and other countries into collections such as the British Museum and The Ashmolean Museum. The fifth work package consists of a study of the significance of the early modern collecting of Sámi material culture for Sámi identity and cultural heritage today.

Last modified: 2022-01-13