Return of Sami Cultural Heritage

What is Bååstede?

Bååstede (which means “return” in the South Sami language) is a project initiated in 2007 by Norsk Folkemuseum/The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, aiming at repatriating half of its Sami collection – some 2000 objects – to six Sami museums situated in the middle and northern parts of the country. An agreement with the Sami Parliament signed in 2012 outlines the progress of the project and specifies the conditions considered necessary to ensure proper handling and storage in the receiving museums. A third party in the agreement is The Cultural Historical Museum in the University of Oslo (KHM), which is legal owner of parts of the collection. The project is to be completed in 2018.

Background of the Collection

Collecting Sami artifacts was initiated by the University of Oslo in the middle of the 19th century, at a time when the Sami were generally considered a marginal minority population and with little control themselves of the fate of their cultural heirlooms. These Sami artifacts became the nucleus of the University’s Ethnographic Museum, opened in 1857. In 1951, the Sami collection, by then counting some 2600 objects, was transferred to Norsk Folkemuseum, with the aim of “placing the Sami on a more equal footing with other Norwegian citizens”.  Norsk Folkemuseum had been founded in 1894 to collect and display the cultural heritage of the Norwegian people, but the Sami were not considered part of that people and only a few Sami objects were included in the collections of that museum prior to the agreement of 1951. As part of the agreement, a Sami department was established in Norsk Folkemuseum and there followed an active period of collecting artifacts as well as photographs and audio recordings of Sami dialects and song traditions. By 2015 the collection comprised some 4500 catalogue numbers.

Returning Sami cultural objects to their places of origin is an idea that has grown gradually. Since the 1970s there have been profound changes in the relations between the Sami and the state, with a general recognition of the legal and moral rights of the Sami as an indigenous people with their historical background in the country. Such recognition lay behind concrete steps such as a Constitutional amendment in 1987 and the introduction in 1989 of a Sami elected assembly (Sámediggi, in English called the Sami Parliament) and several other political reforms. A number of museums dedicated to Sami culture have been founded since1973 and in 1989 they formed The Sami Museums Association (SML). Here the idea of repatriation was discussed, although no concrete claims were put forward. At the same time, the topic of repatriation of cultural heritage from the world’s museums to indigenous groups was also much debated in international context such as within ICOM (The International Council of Museums) and at several international conferences. A joint project by Sami museums in Norway, Finland and Sweden, Recalling Ancestral Voices, aimed at getting an overview of Sami objects in all museums, with this perspective in mind. At the closing conference of that project, at Inari in Finland in 2007, Norsk Folkemuseum announced its decision of discussing with the Sami Parliament a framework for repatriation of parts of its Sami collection. A work group was established with representatives of that museum plus the Sami Parliament and the Sami Museums Association. The recommendations of the work group resulted in the Agreement on Repatriation, signed at the Sami Parliament on June 19th, 2012.

The Agreement

This document specifies the conditions which are considered necessary for transfer of material and outlines how the selection process will be organized. It also gives some guidelines for future handling of the material, emphasizing the obligations of participating institutions in making material available to other museums through loans and various types of cooperation.

The Agreement recognizes the legitimate needs of Norsk Folkemuseum and KHM to maintain a Sami collection for the purposes of research, display and education. This will be ensured through the 50 % that will remain at Norsk Folkemuseum, as a joint resource for these two museums. The other 50 % will be repatriated to the six Sami museums according to their geographical origin. This will include a transfer of full ownership of the repatriated objects.

The parties agree that material should not be moved from optimal storage conditions and optimal handling practices to inferior conditions. This means that all receiving museums should provide localities for storage and display which fulfill generally accepted standards of climate control and security, plus they should provide competent personnel to handle the objects.

The improvements necessary in most of the receiving museums will require major investments and may take years to achieve. This means the physical moving of the objects from storage at Norsk Folkemuseum may be delayed for an unspecified period of time. However, the process of going through the collection and making decisions about what should be repatriated and what should remain will proceed according to the agreed time schedule.

The Process

As specified in the Agreement, a Secretariat was established at Norsk Folkemuseum to prepare and facilitate the process of the project. This included collecting additional information about the objects by going through older records in the archives of Norsk Folkemuseum and the former Ethnographic Museum (now part of KHM) so as to provide a better basis for the final process of selection.

Also, an object conservator was hired to go through the collection and assess the needs for conservation that should be carried out before an object can be moved from storage and eventually repatriated. (This work has later been complicated by the discovery in the collection of pesticides and other toxic substances used in earlier times to combat insects; this presents a number of problems including restrictions on handling the material.)

When the necessary preparations have been concluded, the actual selection of the objects to be repatriated will then be done by a Commission with representatives of the concerned parties. This will be done according to the updated time schedule during the second half of 2017.

The final parts of the process will involve packing the selected objects for separate storage and finally transporting them to the various receiving museums. The exact pace of this last action will depend on the situation at each museum and in some cases may involve prolonged storage at Norsk Folkemuseum.

2017 has been set as the final year of the project. In this year, the Sami in Norway have celebrated the 100 years’ anniversary of the first National Meeting of the Sami, held in Trondheim on February 6th, 1917. The Bååstede project therefore organized an exhibition about the project which was presented as part of the jubilee celebrations. The exhibition was opened in Trondheim on February 6th 2017 by H. M. King Harald V in the presence of the President of the Norwegian Parliament, the Prime Minister and other ministers and dignitaries, including the Presidents of the Sami Parliaments in Norway and Sweden.


The whole Bååstede project has been roughly calculated at altogether some 37 million Norwegian kroner (about 4 million euro or 4.6 million USD). This includes 17 million for direct project expenses and about 20 million for the necessary building improvements in the museums that will receive the objects. None of the participating museums will be able to cover expenses of such scale within their regular budgets. The Bååstede Agreement therefore underlines that financing the repatriation must be a responsibility of the national government, in accordance with the country’s obligations towards the Sami as an indigenous people. This issue remains to be solved. In the meantime, the project has so far been financed by the Sami Parliament and the Arts Council Norway.

Perspectives on the Future

The purpose of the Bååstede project has many facets. It is first and foremost a recognition of the desire of the Sami people to exercise control of their own cultural heritage. On an emotional level, it is meant to contribute to healing wounds of the past which resulted from the treatment of the Sami by the state of Norway through a long period of history. A more pragmatic approach would be that the returned objects will have more value when displayed and used in the communities where they originated, rather than stowed away in the storages of far-away museums in the capital. A more ambitious approach sees this project as a basis for development, stimulating research and educational efforts both within the participating museums as well as between them. It is also to be hoped that this project can be an inspiration to other indigenous groups and peoples around the world who may also want to have material from their cultural heritage repatriated from faraway museums, whether in other countries or in the same country. For that purpose, the project will be concluded with a conference and publication outlining the history of Bååstede and summing up the experiences and lessons learned during this project.

More information:

Project leader at the Secretariat: Káren Elle Gaup karen.elle.gaup@norskfolkemuseum.no

Curator of the Sami collection at Norsk Folkemuseum: Leif Pareli leif.pareli@norskfolkemuseum.no

The report of the working group (in Norwegian) is available as pdf at the homepages of Norsk Folkemuseum as well as the Sami Parliament.

Throughout this paper the concepts “return”, “transfer” and “repatriation” have been used interchangeably. Some may hold that repatriation should be used only when material is being moved from one country to another. It is obvious that such a move will have other consequences than when a transfer takes place between museums that are localized within the same country and thus are subject to the same national legislation and government supervision. However, from an emotional and symbolic perspective, the transfer of material to e.g. an indigenous or otherwise marginalized group within a country can have the same importance as one taking place across national borders. For that reason, no distinction of terms has been made in the present text.


The Sami Parliament (Samediggi)

Norsk Folkemuseum / The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

KHM – The Cultural Historical Museum of the University of Oslo

Árran Lule Sami Center

Deanu and Varjjat Museumsiida (including Deanu, Varjjat and the East Sami Museums and the museum of the Sami artist John Savio).

The Center for Northern Peoples

RiddoDuottarMuseat (including SVD museum in Karasjok, Guovdageainnu Gilisillju in Kautokeino, Porsanger Museum and Kokelv Sea Sami Museum)

Saemien Sijte (the South Sami Museum)

Várdobáiki Center