Vol 27 No 1 (2018): Nordic Journal of African Studies
Articles Social Studies

Mission, relationships and agendas embodied in objects: Formation of the Karl Emil Liljeblad Collection of Ovamboland (1900–1932)

Kaisa Harju
University of Oulu, Finland
Nordic Journal of African Studies
Published September 16, 2018
  • ethnographic collection,
  • missionary ethnography,
  • Namibia,
  • Finland,
  • Ovamboland


Colonial encounters in the late 19th and early 20th century increased European interest in African ethnographic objects. Among the most efficient collectors were missionaries, who already had well-established contact with people whose material culture was then acquired for museums, academia, and private collections. However, missionaries could hardly dictate the content of their ethnographic collections, coproduced as they were by the Africans who donated and sold them the artefacts, or acted as cultural brokers in this process. Based on this premise, my paper investigates how the Karl Emil Liljeblad collection came about. To this day it remains one of the largest missionary collections in Finland of material belonging to the Ovambo culture from Northern Namibia. The article asks, how the differing agendas of the Ovambo and Finnish missionary-ethnographer, Karl Emil Liljeblad, affected what was actually collected. This study is based on the historical analysis and comparison of artefacts in the Liljeblad collection in conjunction with Liljeblad’s letters, diaries, and ethnographic manuscript. It concludes that the collection was determined by both the status and interests of Liljeblad, as well as the decisions, motives, and customs of the Ovambo.