Bååstede: The Return of Sámi Cultural Heritage
Port Townsend, Wash.
Most American tourists to Oslo have visited the museums at Bygdøy, thrilling to the sight of the Kon-Tiki raft, the Polar ship Fram, and the long ships in the Viking Ship Museum. We’ve wandered the enchanted paths of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (Norsk Folkemuseum or NFM), admiring the intricate construction techniques of the stave churches and the grass-roofed mountain seters. Inside the exhibition building, we’ve happily drifted through halls of bunad-clad mannequins, displays of Hardanger fiddles, painted furniture, medieval religious treasures, and glass cases of archeological artifacts. Everything is aimed at creating a rich portrayal of Norway’s long historical footprint, from Viking chieftains to a progressive welfare state.
Fewer travelers may have ventured into the somewhat dimly lit recesses of two large rooms set behind the rooms of medieval church altars and paintings. This is where the Sámi exhibits, of times past and times present, are located. They’re well designed, but under-visited, and don’t necessarily give a sense of the wealth of Sámi culture cared for by the museum: everything from sacred drums to sleds and knives, from manuscripts to political posters, from historical fur clothing to contemporary T-shirts with Sámi designs.
Many of the older items were collected in Norwegian Sápmi from the early 1800s through the mid-20th century, by missionaries, merchants, and ethnographers. They were gathered from as far south as Røros to the northern Finnmark Plateau, from the seacoasts to the mountains that divide Norway and Sweden. Many artifacts were originally in the storerooms of the University of Oslo’s Ethnographic Museum (now the Kulturhistorisk Museum or KHM). Up until 1951, when around 2,500 objects from the KHM’s collection were transferred to the NFM, the Sámi were seen as exotic and “primitive,” outside Norwegian cultural history.
Now, a new sort of transfer is in process, one with enormous significance for both Sápmi and Norway. With agreement among the NFM, the KHM, and the Sámi Parliament, and after years of research and negotiation, almost half the 4,200 objects from the Sámi collection at NFM are being returned to the geographic areas where they originally were created, to be housed and displayed in one of the country’s many Sámi museums. This project has been named Bååstede, a South Sámi language word for “return.”
A newly published book of articles with photographs, Bååstede: The Return of Sámi Cultural Heritage, gives us a variety of perspectives on what the return means. Contributors include a number of museum professionals from Norway, as well as Sweden and Finland, all who work with both national and Sámi museums in the Nordic countries.
Kárin Elle Gaup, the NFM’s manager of the Bååstede project from 2014 to 2019, is one of the editors of this new book, published in Norway by Museumsforlaget. A Sámi from a reindeer-herding family outside Kautokeino, she has long experience in the museum world. In her introduction, which explains the background to this unique repatriation process, she gives some of the reasons for its importance. “This collection is the closest concrete, tangible connection that today’s Sámi have to their ancestors, and it concerns their struggle for existence, equality and justice. It is not the number of artifacts that matters but how the transferred artifacts increase the breadth and depth of the individual museums’ documentation, research and dissemination related to Sámi cultural heritage in the region.”
To Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sámi Parliament in Norway, it’s “a moral imperative that we own our past, present, and future, and that we can tell our stories.”
Unlike Sweden and Finland, which each have one main Sámi-identified museum located in Sápmi, Norway has six consolidated Sámi museums—in actual fact 12 museums, some larger than others. All of them are relatively new compared with the national museums in Oslo. They were created after WWII and for that reason their historical collections are small. Most of northern Norway, particularly Finnmark, was burned and destroyed during the last phases of the German occupation and retreat, and those fires carried away not only buildings but also a good deal of Sápmi’s material culture, some of it stretching back centuries.
All the Sámi museums in Norway are part of the Sámi Museum Association, funded and administered by the Sámi Parliament, which in turn has an annual budget from the Norwegian Storting. These museums, whatever their size, have a strong social component. In addition to providing an educational experience for visitors in the usual ways, through dioramas and glass cases of Sámi material culture and archaeological artifacts, the museums host musical and literary events. Some offer classes in handicraft (duodji in North Sámi) and language. Some also act as schools and libraries for children and as meeting spaces for adults. All these activities and events are aimed at creating and sustaining Sámi community.
The Bååstede project is, by reason of Norway’s far-flung geography, an ambitious undertaking. One of the main inspirations was Utimut, a large repatriation effort undertaken by the governments of Greenland and Denmark to return some 35,000 objects, mostly archaeological, from the National Museum of Denmark to Greenland. In addition to the formal return of the objects, the Danish government paid to remodel a new museum and archives in the capital Nuuk. Bååstede, while involving far fewer artifacts, has encompassed many more venues. Instead of building one new Sámi museum with climate-controlled storerooms, the project has aimed to spread the objects around Sápmi, making sure that every museum gets some objects, particularly those that were initially created in that region. In all, 1,639 objects are in the process of physical return. By mutual consent, the other half of the NFM’s collection will remain in Oslo at the museum for study and sharing with visitors.
As could be expected, the process has not been without its challenges. In earlier times museum staff used toxic pesticides freely, particularly on clothing and furs, to prevent damage by insects. Such clothing has required special treatment before it can be transferred. Better documentation has also been necessary. Those who first registered the items often only wrote, “Finnmark,” or left the space blank. But the biggest obstacle has been funding for museums to upgrade their infrastructure. Many Sámi museums have lacked sufficient storeroom space or adequate climate-control facilities. Such funding has been slow in coming from the government.
In one case, an entirely new museum and community center is being constructed, to open in 2022 in Snåsa, north of Trondheim. Most of the receiving museums, however, may have to wait to see the agreed-upon items back home again. While waiting, some Sámi museums have put on exhibits to explore the Bååstede process and to educate visitors from Norway and abroad on the significance of the return. Repatriation of Indigenous culture is more discussed than ever in the Nordic countries. Finland recently made the decision to transfer half of its Sámi collection to the Sámi museum Siida, which is currently being expanded and remodeled.
At some point, no trip to the Nordic countries will be complete without stops at several of the Sámi museums, whether Ǻjtte in Jokkmokk, Sweden, or Siida in Inari, Finland, or in one of the many Norwegian Sámi museums from Snåsa to Karasjok to the Varanger fjord. In the meantime, the book Bååstede exists to document the steps that have been taken thus far and to share a remarkable transnational effort to bring back historical material culture to Sápmi.
This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.