Between Ethnology and Cultural History
Where to Place East Asian Objects in Slovenian Museums?
Keywords:National Museum of Slovenia, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, East Asian objects, museum classification, ethnology, cultural history, art
While a few larger collections of objects of East Asian origin entered Slovenian museums after the deaths of their owners in the 1950s and 60s, individual items had begun finding their way there as early as the nineteenth century. Museums were faced early on with the problem not only of how to store and exhibit the objects, but also how to categorize them. Were they to be treated as “art” on account of their aesthetic value or did they belong, rather, to the field of “ethnography” or “anthropology” because they could illustrate the way of life of other peoples? Above all, in which museums were these objects to be housed?
The present paper offers an in-depth analysis of these and related questions, seeking to shed light on how East Asian objects have been showcased in Slovenia (with a focus on the National Museum and the Slovene Ethnographic Museum) over the past two hundred years. In particular, it explores the values and criteria that were applied when placing these objects into individual categories. In contrast to the conceptual shift from “ethnology” to the “decorative and fine arts,” which can mostly be observed in the categorization of East Asian objects in North America and the former European colonial countries, the classification of such objects in Slovenia varied between “ethnology” and “cultural history,” with ethnology ultimately coming out on top. This ties in with the more general question of how (East) Asian cultures were understood and perceived in Slovenia, which is itself related to the historical and social development of the “peripheral” Slovenian area compared with former major imperial centres.
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