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Ethnographic Collections

Focus on Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America
In Ghent University's Ethnographic Collections, the oldest acquisitions are as old as the university itself. The core of the collection includes objects from Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, in particular the countries of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia and the Mayan, Aztec and Quimbaya cultures.

The thousand-year-old statue of Ganesha from Hindu Javanese antiquity is one of the highlights. It forms part of the ‘Javanica’ cabinet that launched the ethnic collection, at that time still part of the Archaeology collection. At the end of the 19th century, a particularly rare selection of pre-Columbian finds from Guatemala found its way into the collection, thanks to Adolf De Ceuleneer. Biologist and ethnographer Camille de Bruyne expanded the ethnic collection still further in 1905, including ‘doubles’ from the Berlin Museum of Ethnology that he purchased for his own lectures.

A progressive collection policy

Under the impetus of Frans Olbrechts, one of the founding fathers of the scientific study of ethnography and non-Western art, the didactic collection doubled in size to around 4,000 objects. Olbrechts placed ethnic art at the same level as Western art. He also argued that it was not only ritual and art objects but also articles for everyday use that were worth collecting. As a result of Olbrechts’ progressive collection policy, the collection increasingly began to reflect the daily lives of different peoples, and also showing greater gender balance as objects for daily use were mostly made by women. The professor also expanded the ethnographic subcollection in a sensitive manner with acquisitions from his Ivory Coast expedition (1938-1939). These included several hundred extremely well-documented works of art (images, masks, utensils) from the Dan and Senufo, two rural peoples.

When the Ethnic Art degree programme was stopped in 2004, the collection lost its direct educational function. Consequently its historical, aesthetic and museum value is considered all the more important today. In addition, the collection is now actively involved in research and education for other programmes at Ghent University and elsewhere. Connoisseurs will also encounter some very rare pieces here. Three specialist areas have formed the heart of the collection since the acquisition of Camille De Bruyne's collection: Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, in particular the countries of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia and the Mayan, Aztec and Quimbaya cultures.

Not to be missed at the GUM

Since 2009, collection manager Dr Pauline van der Zee has been giving the collection a new dynamic, initiating research projects and exhibiting the collection to the public. In this context, she recently instigated the transfer of a number of highlights from the collection to the permanent exhibition at the new GUM. These include an outstanding tree fern sculpture from Vanuatu (Oceania), a unique twin statue from the Ivory Coast and a remarkable range of Mayan drinking cups that were found at a known location: Finca Chich’en near Coban in Guatemala.


Within its collection policy, the GUM is developing a vision of themes that relate to the origin of the objects in its collections. In particular, these are pieces that may have been acquired unlawfully or whose origin is uncertain.

The development of this vision ties in with Ghent University's values: social engagement, openness and pluralism. The Ghent University Museum is playing an active role in the consultative bodies set up to discuss these themes within the sector, such as the Restitution Working Group that is preparing Belgian guidelines following the example of the research groups in our neighbouring countries. This working group consists of experts from the heritage and academic sectors who wish to unite in an individual capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the debate. The working group grew out of Etnocoll, a platform of experts with experience in ethnographic collections.

Contact with the communities of origin of the ethnographic collections has long formed part of the functioning of the university collections. The attention currently being paid to this issue from a national and international perspective may serve as a catalyst, making it possible to achieve an overarching policy within the sector more quickly.

Photos: Geert Roels

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