Martti Rautanen’s Collection of Aawambo Artefacts in Finland

Leila Koivunen

The work of Martti Rautanen (1845–1926) is a prime example of the collaboration between mission workers and European academia that took place in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century. Rautanen did not have any formal education in linguistics, natural history or ethnology, but during more than half a century in Olukonda, in the north of present-day Namibia, he contributed to these fields of research by collecting a variety of specimen, samples and vocabulary. In a similar manner to many other missionaries of the time, Rautanen assumed the role of a fieldworker in the general Western pursuit of knowledge and provided material for European museums and other research institutions.

Rautanen is known especially for his extensive literary work in documenting the Oshindonga language and in creating the first pieces of written literature by translating and composing hymns, an ABC primer, and, eventually, the Bible. He was interested in observing and documenting local cultures and folklore, but he also contributed to botany, zoology, mineralogy and meteorology. In 1885, Rautanen met the Swiss botanist Hans Schinz, who participated in a scientific expedition in the region. The two men undertook long trips together during which they studied local flora and fauna. Schinz proved to be an influence on Rautanen in terms of his future collections, as he showed his colleague how to systematize and organize data in a scholarly manner. Thus, after becoming acquainted with Schinz, Rautanen’s observations and documentation methodology became increasingly detailed. Schinz was also influential in turning Rautanen’s attention to the systematic collection of material culture.

Rautanen adopted several methods when seeking to increase his collection of artefacts. It is known that he received various objects as gifts when meeting with the local king, chiefs and other eminent persons. The Africans, in turn, received presents from Rautanen. In addition to these reciprocal gifts, which carried symbolic value, a variety of everyday objects were received as a result of bartering. As many of the objects in Rautanen’s collection were new and unused, it is likely that he also commissioned local carpenters to carve them for him. The collection also included amulets, adornments and pieces of clothing that the local people were forced to abandon when they converted to Christianity. The first conversions took place in the 1880s.

A Home Exhibition with Academic Visitors

Rautanen’s first visit to Finland took place in 1891–1892, after twenty-two years of working and residing in Olukonda. He returned to Finland with most of the items he had gathered in Africa: minerals, plant samples and artefacts. Although the largest and heaviest objects had to be left in Africa, the artefact collection was still by far the largest to be found in Finland at the time. On his return to Finland, Rautanen undertook preaching tours to various parts of the country, during which he talked about his work in Africa to a multitude of people. As with previous returning missionaries, he is known to have presented items from his collection in order to demonstrate and illuminate aspects of African culture to a Finnish audience. The interest aroused by these objects was utilized to inform his audience about his experiences abroad and to gain moral and economic support for future work.

In addition to using artefacts in order to illustrate aspects of his talks, Rautanen also actively sought to attract the attention of Finnish scholars and scientific organizations to the entire collection as a means to find a permanent depository for it. Rautanen clearly felt that the collections he had amassed were his own property and did not automatically belong to his employer, the Finnish Missionary Society. In fact, Rautanen regarded his collections as a potential source for recouping some of the expenses he had incurred when his family had taken up residence in Finland. Since the Missionary Society could not pay for the artefacts and did not have a permanent museum to display them at the time, Rautanen had to think of other options. As a person with a scholarly-oriented idea of amassing collections, he wanted to find an esteemed organization that could keep his collections and preferably also pay for them.

To gain publicity for his collection and to better display it, Rautanen first arranged a temporary exhibition in an apartment in the center of Helsinki where he and his family lived. This little home exhibition, or “African museum” as it was called, was visited by groups of invited scholars, employees and members of local parishes, as well as friends and family members. The exhibition was also publicly advertised and it was free of charge for all casual passersby. According to one journalist who visited the exhibition, Rautanen gave detailed presentations of the artefacts, describing, for instance, how and for what purposes they had been made. He also mentioned that duplicates of some artefacts were available to buy. Some items were possibly sold to casual visitors and a small number of artefacts are known to have ended up in local schools, where they formed part of the teaching collections. Yet, it is clear that Rautanen regarded his collection as a systematic entity and wished to find an organization that would appreciate and preserve it in its entirety.

Among the first scholars to be invited to Rautanen’s home exhibition were the board members of the Finnish Geographical Society. It was subsequently visited by leading linguists and ethnologists of the Imperial Alexander University of Helsinki. An especially important visitor was Ernst Gustaf Palmén, a professor of history who also acted as the director of the Museum of History and Ethnography at the university. Rautanen presented his collection to Palmén, who became convinced that it was the responsibility of the university to preserve the collection. In order to obtain the collection, Palmén had to apply for extra funding from the university administration. In his appeal he emphasized that, unlike previous collections held at the museum, the Aawambo artefacts had been systematically amassed and formed a “complete” entity. According to Palmén, this enabled interesting comparisons to be made between these artefacts and the “standpoints of prehistoric people”. Palmén was one of the early practitioners of Darwinism in Finland and sought to promote comparative approaches in historical and cultural studies. Thus, from his point of view, the collection was especially valuable because it provided comparative material on which to base arguments on human development and evolution. The collection was purchased for the university museum for the cost of 533 Finnish Marks, which was a significantly higher price than what was paid at the time for most comparable acquisitions. The Finnish Geographical Society purchased Rautanen’s collection of plants and received some mineral samples as a donation.

Aawambo Life Illuminated

Rautanen was requested to compile an object catalog and submit it with the artefacts. Entitled “Descriptions of Ndongan Ethnographic Objects from Ndonga” (Selityksiä ndongalaisille etnografisille esineille), the catalog consisted of detailed descriptions of each of the 127 artefacts purchased for the museum. It is quite likely that this amount covered most of the items Rautanen had amassed in the Owambo area. As mentioned, separate items were sold or donated to schools and possibly to friends and relatives. Rautanen is also known to have kept some items for himself to be shown in the context of public speeches. Some artefacts, for instance a model of an Ondonga household, which Rautanen had himself constructed, ended up being stored with the Finnish Missionary Society.

The object catalog was carefully compiled and it clearly shows that Rautanen considered himself to be an expert who was able to disseminate his knowledge to the Finnish public about the culture and living conditions of the Owambo area. Knowing that he would soon depart to Africa once again, Rautanen felt the need to share his knowledge and thus ensure that the objects remained comprehensible in the Finnish context. This was not always the case with late nineteenth-century collections: Rautanen’s Aawambo collection stands out as an early attempt to store contextual information in addition to the actual objects.

Rautanen divided the catalog into seven categories, according to the function of artefacts. The biggest category was weapons and it constituted 37% of all artefacts. Other categories included clothing and accessories (20%), pipes, snuffboxes and other “necessaries” (13%), dishes (12%), amulets (12%), tools (6%) and musical instruments (1%). After first giving the local name of each object, Rautanen described the meaning and purpose of each item, as well as the materials they were made from and the techniques used to produce them. At times, descriptions included information about the typicality or value of items. Certain descriptions included lengthy accounts or detailed anecdotes about the objects. As far as snuffboxes are concerned, for instance, detailed accounts were given about the connection of the use of snuff to Aawambo hospitality and practices of reconciliation. Another example shows how a description of oonyoka necklaces expanded into an account about the practices of exchange between the Aawambo and Herero peoples. The object catalog thus drew a vivid picture of the living conditions and everyday life in the region.

Martti Rautanen gave a vivid description of oonyoka necklaces. The Finnish Heritage Agency.


The Collection Ends up in Storage

Rautanen hoped that by selling his artefact collection to the Museum of History and Ethnography at the Imperial Alexander University he could ensure that it was accessible to scholars and the general public alike. However, the collection was acquired by the university at a very turbulent time. One year after the acquisition of the collection, in 1893, the university museum became part of a newly-founded national organization, which later became the National Museum of Finland. During the following decades the new museum did not have a permanent site, and, due to a severe lack of exhibition premises, practically all foreign artefacts were packed and kept in storage. The situation remained unchanged when the new purpose-built National Museum was opened to the public in 1916. It was only with the establishment of the Museum of Cultures in the center of Helsinki and the opening of its permanent exhibition in 2004 that a number of the objects collected by Rautanen could be placed on display. Unfortunately, the museum closed only a decade later and the artefacts of non-Finnish origin – including the Rautanen Collection – were put into storage once again.

After his short visit to Finland, Rautanen returned to Africa to undertake fieldwork in Olukonda in October 1892. During the following decades he participated in various collection campaigns organized by German ethnologists and ethnographical museums. These collections ended up in museums in Berlin and Leipzig, as well as in Natal in South Africa. Six hundred ethnographical objects are associated with Rautanen. His collaboration with Hans Schinz continued and Rautanen sent botanic samples and meteorological observations to Swizz organizations for decades after the two had initially met in Owambo.


Grönholm, K., Martti Rautanen ja hänen Suomen kansallismuseossa oleva kansatieteellinen kokoelmansa. Martti Rautasen Ambomaan kokoelma Suomen kansallismuseossa. [Helsinki]: Museovirasto, 1983, 4–17.

Harries, P., Anthropology. Missions and Empire. Ed. Norman Etherington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 238–260.

Härö, M., Suomen muinaismuistohallinto ja antikvaarinen tutkimus. Muinais-tieteellinen toimikunta 1884–1917. Helsinki: Museovirasto, 1984.

Koivunen, L., Terweisiä Kiinasta ja Afrikasta. Suomen Lähetysseuran näyttelytoiminta 1870–1939-luvuilla. Helsinki: Suomen Lähetysseura, 2011.

Koivunen, L., Eksotisoidut esineet ja avartuva maailma. Euroopan ulkopuoliset kulttuurit näytteillä Suomessa 1870–1910-luvuilla. Helsinki: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura, 2015.

Oombale dhi ihaka. “A bond that cannot be broken”. An annotated catalogue of Ndonga artifacts in the “Rautanen collection” at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. Windhoek: Museums Association of Namibia, 2019.

Peltola, M., Martti Rautanen. Mies ja kaksi isänmaata. Helsinki: Suomen Lähetysseura, 1994.

Rautanen, M., Selityksiä ndongalaisille etnografisille esineille. Martti Rautasen Ambomaan kokoelma Suomen kansallismuseossa. [Helsinki]: Museovirasto, 1983, 18–86.

Talvio, T., Suomen kansallismuseo. Ikkuna menneeseen ja tulevaan. Helsinki: Museovirasto, 2016.

Varjola, P., Suomen kansallismuseon yleisetnografinen kokoelma. Suomen museo 1981, 51–86.


About the Author

Leila Koivunen is Professor in European and World History at the University of Turku. She is a specialist in the history of cultural encounters and the processes of intercultural knowledge formation, especially between Africa and Europe. She has studied practices of visualizing Africa and the history of collecting and exhibiting African artefacts.