Today, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum (SEM) – a museum “about people, for people” – presents traditional and urban, mass and pop culture in Slovenia as well as from diaspora. The museum’s origins can be traced back to the ethnographic collections of the Provincial Museum of Carniola, established in 1821, although its immediate precursor was the Royal Ethnographic Museum, founded in 1923. Its rich exhibition programme is dedicated also to non-European cultures. Parts of its rich ethnological collections and specially curated projects are also presented online.
The museum has three departments and several curatorships: the documentation department with a photo studio, the conservation and restoration department and the library are important information resources. SEM also features as the national coordinator of intangible culture. Since 2007, SEM has also organised the international Days of Ethnographic Film (DEF) together with the Slovene Ethnological Society and the Scientific Research Centre (ZRC SAZU), Slovene Academy of Science and Arts.
SEM is situated in the new cultural centre in the former barracks complex on Metelkova ulica in Ljubljana, with the National Museum of Slovenia and the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM) as its neighbours. The SEM Café is one of the most popular meeting points in Ljubljana.
The first collections incorporated in the Kranjska Provincial Museum only partly related to Slovene culture and were mainly non-European with items donated by Slovene seamen and catholic missionaries (Friderik Baraga, Ignacij Knoblehar, Franc Pirc, Janez Čebulj).
The ethnological collections had been managed by the Institute of Ethnography since its establishment in 1921 at the then National Museum within the Rudolfinum building in Ljubljana. Two years later, the institute became independent as the Royal Ethnographic Museum with Niko Županič (1876–1961) as the head. In 1941, it was renamed the Ethnographic Museum, and finally, in 1964, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum. The collections were presented also at some of the castles surrounding Ljubljana such as the Goričane Castle, which housed the non-European collections until 2001.
In 1997, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum moved to its current location at Metelkova ulica. Three national museums are housed in the former Austro-Hungarian barracks from the late-19th century. A modern museum building was added on in 2004.
Mission and facilities
The Slovene Ethnographic Museum offers insight into the traditional and contemporary culture of Slovenes living on the territory of Slovenia and in nearby countries (Italy, Austria and Hungary) and of immigrants to Slovenia and ethnic groups living here. It also aims to foster knowledge about non-European cultures.
The museum manages a 2000m² depot, 2700m² for permanent exhibitions and three temporary exhibition halls. The ground floor houses a multi-functional entrance hall, an information desk, a cloak-room, a museum shop, a crafts workshop and a popular café. The museum’s spacious courtyard is used for various events.
The museum exhibits two major permanent exhibitions. The first one Between Nature and Culture, opened in 2006, received a Valvasor recognition in 2007. The selection out of museum collections presents over 3000 items of every day and holiday life. The second permanent exhibition I, Us and Others – Images of my World, staged in 2009, is an exhibition about the human being and its relation to the world. Apart from these permanent exhibitions, there is also an exhibition on gingerbread and candle-making, with a reconstruction of an actual shop, and a reconstruction of the Photo Studio Holinsky, both once operating in Ljubljana.
SEM temporary exhibition Sudan Mission 1848–1858 (2009) presented the oldest collection of African objects of the Nilotic people in Europe, which were collected by missionary and researcher of the White Nile Ignacij Knoblehar. In 2013, the museum’s 90th anniversary was celebrated by an attractive temporary exhibition Doors. Spatial and Symbolic Passageways of Life. The innovative exhibition My Feet. My Shoes. My Way from 2019 presented different cultures and life stages through personal stories linked to shoes. An experimental prototype production was made together with the Department of Textiles, Graphic Arts and Design.
The section SEM from Home on the museum’s website offers rich online collections of objects, photography and filmography. The gallery of storytellers is linked to the permanent exhibition I, Us and Others – Images of my World. Even during the COVID-19 epidemic in Slovenia, the museum collected jokes and tales about the new coronavirus and life during this time.
The museum houses more than 40,000 objects in several collections at eleven curatorships:
– the Dwelling Culture Collection of Slovene ethnic territory consists of furniture, illuminants, building parts and wall decorations, cooking, heating, eating, storing, cleaning and personal care accessories;
– the Social Culture Collection of toys, Easter eggs and bundles, pastry and inn inventory, tallies and measures;
– the Spiritual Culture Collection of amulets, masks, folk instruments;
– the Ethnographic Film Collection presents the lifestyle of Slovenes and peoples of the world and is available online;
– the Rural Economy, Traffic and Transport Collection of items used in hunting, fishing, gathering, farming;
– the Stockbreeding, Beekeeping, Forestry, Transport and Travel Collection;
– the Folk Art and Art Sources Collection of painted beehive front boards, signs, votive images and figurines, tombstones, crucifixes, boxes and plates, household altars, paintings on glass, wood and canvas, distaffs and bars, legacy of Šantel family, art sources by Maksim Gaspari, Peter Žmitek and others;
– the Costumes and Textiles Collection of clothes and accessories, underwear, lacework and embroideries;
– the Handicraft and Trade Collection of pottery, forge, wickerwork, timber industry, textile and footwear trade, dyeing, ropery, clockmaker’s trade, lectar and candle making, painting crafts;
– the Ethnic Minorities Collection of Slovene migrants and of minorities and other ethnic communities in Slovenia;
– the African and American Collections from Old Egypt, Sudan, Eastern and Western Africa, Togo, South Africa, North and South America, Mexico, Bolivia;
– the Asian, Oceania and Australian Collections from China, Tibet, India, Japan, Indonesia, Nepal and Oceania.
Special collections deserving further mention are:
the Egyptian Collection, donated in 1843 by Anton Laurin;
the Easter Sudan Collection, donated in 1850 by Ignacij Knoblehar;
the Anton Codelli Collection from Togo, Nigeria and Cameroon brought in 1912–1914;
the Pygmy Collection donated by Paul Schebesta;
the Chinese Collection collected by Peter Turk in 1912–1913;
the Indonesian Collection donated by Vera and Aleš Bebler in 1970; and
the Mexican Collection donated by Vera and Ignac Golob in 1978.
The museum’s premises with a reading room are open to the public for educational purposes. The education department organises guided tours, thematic workshops for children and adults and a range of other educational events such as video screenings, lectures and regular museum workshops. SEM’s educational programme includes intangible cultural heritage workshops in its own well-equipped premises: a pottery workshop and a weaving workshop.
The museum publishes the Etnolog (Ethnologist) Journal since 1926 and a variety of other publications, including at least one study work each year dealing with museum collections.
Since 1991, the museum publishes the Slovene Ethnographic Museum Library Collection, where its collections from the depots are presented to the public. From its fourth volume on, the contents are bilingual (in Slovenian and English).
Another serial publication Art Trails (Likovne sledi) presents artworks stored in the museum. The youngest serial publication Collections from This or That Side? presents the ethnographic collections outside the museum, basically referring to the Slovene ethnic territory. The volumes are bilingual (in Slovenian and in the language of the state where the collection is presented).
Documentation and restoration department
The Documentation and Restoration Department preserves numerous data and records, including 5,000 field drawings and sketches, 35,000 photographic negatives, 2,100 slides, field notebooks, posters and Hemerotec since 1923. It cooperates with the Museum Documentation Association (UK) and uses ICOM-CIDOC and SPECTRUM standards for archival activities and digitisation processes.
Safeguarding the intangible culture
In 2011, the Slovene Ethnographic Museum took over the national coordination of intangible culture in Slovenia, which was previously entrusted to the Institute of Slovene Ethnology. While the methodological issues and criteria for the inclusion of particular intangible culture items in the register have been set in the initial phase, the basic task of the new coordinator’s working group of experts is to maintain and develop the national database and make suggestions for the inclusion in the UNESCO representative list of the world’s intangible heritage.
The museum stages between three and eight guest exhibitions each year. Among the most notable have also been the Sublime Taiwan – Its Natural and Cultural Sightseeing, the Beauty of Chinese Painting: Reproductions from National Museum Taipei Collections (both 2010). In 2019, the Shamanism of the Peoples of Siberia exhibition was prepared in collaboration with the Russian Museum of Ethnography, Saint Petersburg. In exchange, the Russian museum hosted the Beehive Panels: Images of the Sacred and the Secular curated by SEM.
Since 1995, the museum has toured its exhibitions (for example, You See Me, I See You: Cultural Diversity through Roma Eyes toured in 2009 to Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg, Love is in the air: Love gifts in Slovene traditional culture toured to Finland and Hungary).
The Slovene Ethnographic Museum has also successfully cooperated in a number of EU research projects. Among the most notable was the SWICH (Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage) project, a collaboration of 10 museums around Europe, led by the Weltmuseum Wien (2014–2018). The project resulted in the notable Africa and Slovenia. A Web of People and Objects experimental exhibition and received the ICOM Slovenia Award. The collaboration evolved into the project TAKING CARE Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums as Spaces of Care (2019–2023).
Other collaborations include the Raphael project Linen on Net: The Common Roots of European Linen Patterns (1998); the Carnival King of Europe (since 2010) by Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina (Italia) with project partners from Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia, Polland, Romania, Macedonia and Slovenia.
The museum was also a partner in the project The European Route of Roma Culture and Heritage (2009–2010). Among the partners were the Office for National Minorities and Romano Pejtaušago Kamenci (Slovenia) and others from Luxembourg, Greece, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, France and Romania.
Another collaborative project supported by EU funding in that period was Carnival King of Europe, initiated by Museum of the habits and customs of the people of Trentino in San Michele all’Adige (IT) with partners from Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Macedonia, Poland, Romania and Spain.
Since 1999 SEM has been a “client” in the MUSEUMS programme Energy Efficiency and Sustainability in Retrofitted and New Museum Buildings (Framework 5). It has also cooperated in the MATRA programme and hosted an intern from Russia.
The exchange of international experts and studies abroad is common. Since 1997 the museum has organised and hosted several conferences: in 1998, a symposium on “Ethnological and Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Death”; and in 2000, a conference on “Food and Celebration, from Fasting to Feasting”, the first meeting of the Music and Minorities group and a conference of three ICOM committees: CIMUSET, ICTOP, MPT.
The Slovene Ethnographic Museum is a member of the Network of European Ethnographic Museums (NET) and since 2002, it has also been a member of the Association of European Migration Institutions (AEMI), itself also a member of ICOM and ICOM-CIDOC.