Barbara Trnovec

What Is a Samurai Doing Here?

East Asian objects from the Celje Regional Museum collection 


Charming black lacquerware with distinctive decorations first became objects of desire among the European aristocracy in the 16th century, but eventually turned into items accessible to broader circles of collectors. Some of the lacquer objects in the exhibition were made in Japan, while others were produced in Europe according to Japanese models. One of the most popular decorations was the motif of flowers and birds, characterized by a wide range of symbolic meanings. Flowers and birds are depicted on a number of the exhibited objects, including the Japanese folding screen, whose detail is presented at the exhibition, and a gilded cobalt blue fan with an ivory handle. This is one of the most valuable fans found in any Slovenian museum collection.

The valuable missionary scroll is one of the few such well-preserved specimens of high quality in museum collections worldwide. It was produced in the second half of the 19th century in the workshop of a Jesuit orphanage near Shanghai. The back of the scroll bears a barely visible, four-line pencil note. We can discern the following: Mission Anstalt (?), (illegible) bei Shanghai, Shanghai 3/5 1883, Hoy (?).

Another interesting set of items is the samurai equipment, especially the two helmets. The first of them, on display at the exhibition, stands out for its unique shape and its age – it is said to have been made in the 16th century – and the second stands out for its superior workmanship. Both of them were once used in their authentic environment, in Japan, as part of battle equipment. They were brought from Japan in the 19th century and transferred to their new, Slovene environment, where they turned into decorative objects. They adorned the “blue-painted Chinese room” at Lemberg Castle. Perhaps the same room also boasted an attractive bronze incense burner in the shape of an elephant with a pagoda on its back, a so-called “peace bringing elephant”. This would only be possible to tell after thorough analysis of photographs taken of the castle’s interior at the time.

Who were the collectors of these objects? When and how did they acquire them? What motivated them to do so? What is the provenance of these items? How did they end up in the Celje Museum? These objects of East Asian origin, which comprise the unusual collection kept by the Provincial Museum of Celje (PMC), thus raise many questions that still need to be answered. 

Just as the collection itself is unusual in its nature, so is the way it came into being. The objects originate from the Federal Collection Centre for Cultural and Historical Objects of the Celje District Centre (FZC OC Celje), established in the summer of 1945. The same year, they were taken over by the Celje Regional Museum (PMC), called the Celje Municipal Museum at the time. They were inventoried in 1964, with 153 inventory numbers determined (that does not denote the number of items in the collection), and the collection was named the Collection of Objects from Asia and South America. For decades, it shared the fate of many collections kept in museum storage and almost unknown to both the general public and experts.

We will probably never know to whom the majority of the objects in the collection belonged before their “transition to state ownership”. However, prior ownership may be determined in some instances. Dedicated research and a series of fortunate coincidences for example led to the discovery of the samurai equipment’s origin in 2017. The equipment was presented to the general public that same year for the first time at the exhibition entitled Paths of the Samurai at the National Museum of Slovenia. Some wondered at the time, and may still be wondering, whether these “foreign, exotic” objects were also part of our heritage. The answer is yes, of course. After all, they contributed to the process of shaping the spiritual landscape of our region, our values, identity, beliefs, knowledge, and traditions. Therefore, they belong to our cultural heritage just as well.

Museums – institutions open to the public, and in the service of society and its development – collect, preserve, study, interpret, and exhibit heritage, among other things, as well as provide information about it “in order to develop heritage awareness, spread knowledge about its values, ​​and encourage its appreciation”. The fruitful cooperation between the Celje Regional Museum and the Department of Asian Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, which has been ongoing since 2014, has further contributed to the realization of these noble objectives. Three years later (in 2017), this partnership led the department and the museum to sign an agreement, according to which both institutions committed themselves to joint research, with a special emphasis on the study of objects of Asian origin kept by the Celje Regional Museum. Since 2018, this cooperation has been part of the project called East Asian Collections in Slovenia: Inclusion of Slovenia in the Global Exchanges of Objects and Ideas with East Asia. The present exhibition is but one of the results achieved though this cooperation.

Photo caption:

The motif of a branch with open camellia flowers and three sparrows from the Japanese black-lacquered table A 80, interpreted in cobalt blue from the Chinese fan A 64. Both objects are part of the Collection of Objects from Asia and South America from the Celje Regional Museum.

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Filozofska Fakulteta
Oddelek Za Azijske Studije

Sodelujoče inštitucije

Narodni Muzej Slovenije
Pokrajinski Muzej Celje
Pomorski Muzej