I visited the Slovene Ethnographic Museum primarily on the recommendation of a friend, as my natural inclination would have been to seek out something a bit quirkier (like the Tobacco museum, which I think was actually owned by a tobacco company who I’m sure have purely altruistic motives…). That being said, there were enough weird and wonderful things inside the Ethnographic Museum to hold my attention. Like the demented rabbit totem shown above, who looked like an even scarier cousin of that rabbit in Donnie Darko.
The Ethnographic Museum was located in a section of Ljubljana which was described as “artistic” and “trendy,” which I think we all know are just euphemisms for the shitty end of town. I exaggerate slightly; nowhere in Ljubljana seemed dangerous or or especially rundown, it just wasn’t as attractive as the Old Town. The museum was part of a complex that seemed to include a few other museums, or maybe art studios? It was hard to tell, as the signs were all in Slovenian. Anyway, admission was pretty cheap, only 4 euros or so. The building had at least 4 floors, but as far as I could tell, there was only exhibition space on two of those floors, though I think I might have missed something.
I’d never been to an ethnographic museum before, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I was hoping to learn more about Slovenian culture and history. What I got instead was the most self-reflective museum I’ve ever encountered. I started with the “Between Nature and Culture” exhibit on the 3rd floor, which opened with a collection of objects from around the world, and musings on the definitions of ethnicity and identity. The museum then began philosophising about the nature of museums themselves, and the purpose of collecting. I honestly felt like I was back at university, sitting through a Historical Methods class or something. It was rather bizarre to find a museum contemplating its own existence.
All of the signs at the start of the museum were translated into English (obviously, as I’m not canny enough to pick up on introspection written in Slovenian), but as I progressed into the section on Slovenian culture, the English was limited to booklets at the end of each exhibit that had little blurbs about the various objects. Still, I enjoyed looking at the variety of Slovenian artefacts, in particular the beehive paintings (I’ve read that there’s a whole beehive panel museum in Slovenia, but I wasn’t able to track it down, so it may have closed. Another reason why someone needs to update Weird Europe, as a 15 year old travel guide isn’t that useful!), and the intriguing wooden toys, especially the curious fellow seen below.
I wasn’t sure whether to head up to the 4th floor, as there were no barriers preventing it, but it wasn’t listed on the map, so I headed downstairs instead. In retrospect, I think they might have been hiding a special exhibit on collars up there, as I didn’t see it elsewhere in the museum, but I wasn’t bothered enough to go back up and investigate. The 2nd floor was the home of “I, We and Others: Images of my World,” which sounded, if anything even more self-analytical than the previous exhibition. However, I’ll never actually know, as nothing on this level had an English translation. I feel like a spoilt American complaining about this, since I was in Slovenia, and they shouldn’t have to cater to me. That said, the museum was near empty, and the only other people in there were a French couple who rushed through all the bits with no translation, so there’s obviously a market for English captions besides just native English speakers. I think if they want to attract more tourist trade, they’d do well to at least put out some booklets explaining the exhibit in various languages.
As far as I could tell (gleaned mainly from the museum brochure and the objects on display), the exhibit focused on the stories of Slovenian immigrants, and finding one’s place in the world, as well as the struggle to identify with a culture. I really, really wish I had been able to read the text in this section, as these are all topics I dwell on quite a bit myself, which I think is fairly common to the expat experience. I’m never sure whether I identify more with Britain or America, as I never feel completely home in either country anymore, and that’s without even dragging my ancestry into things. (Not that I feel particularly Polish or Slovenian, aside from being able to make pierogi, and participating in a few other family traditions). I guess even without translations, the Ethnographic Museum seems to have led me into introspection (not that it’s hard to do)!
The saving grace of this section (for me) was the videos, which helpfully had English captions available. They featured a number of older Slovenes discussing growing up in foreign countries, fairy tales, or just their daily life. I genuinely enjoy listening to the elderly talk about their lives (probably largely to do with missing my grandparents), so I liked the videos a lot, and ended up watching most of them. Since I never found the special exhibit, that was pretty much all there was to the Ethnographic Museum.
I’ll give the Ethnographic Museum 3/5. The sections I could read piqued my interest (even if they could have cut back on the philosophy a wee bit), but there was too much in the museum that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate due to having no idea what was going on. I think with a more visually based museum, translations aren’t quite as necessary, but this museum’s exhibits were so dependent on the written word that I couldn’t help feeling left out.