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Fragments of the Far East: East Asian objects in the mariners' collections

Maritime museum "Sergej Mašera" Piran

17. 6. 2023 - 31. 3. 2024


The homes of many mariners, particularly officers, differed from other people's homes already in the distant past. Items from foreign, non-European places, which they brought back from their voyages, gave them a special stamp. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, mariners were among the very few in the Slovenian ethnic region who travelled to other continents. From there, they brought objects for themselves and as presents for other people. Some even sold them. In the new environment, the items still served their original purpose, although acquiring new functions, with decorative one being the commonest. For them and their relatives, however, their value of memories was even more important. The items bore witness to the voyages of seafarers and their encounters with foreign lands, but also to their original environment and the culture of the local inhabitants. With them, knowledge of foreign cultures thus spread.


The mariners of the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian navies, particularly naval forces in which seafarers from the Slovenian ethnic region served until the end of World War I, brought home most items from their transoceanic voyages to East Asia. These objects were highly valued and in demand in Europe not only owing to their quality and aesthetic value, but also owing to the fact that they originated from places that were among the most distant from ours, and because the cultures of the inhabitants in that part of the world were very different and poorly known. As the Habsburg Monarchy was not a colonial superpower, its ships sailed to East Asia more frequently only after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This is the reason, why the objects from East Asia in the mariners’ collections originate predominantly from this period. The collections that have survived till this day are relatively modest, the only exception being the collection of Ivan Skušek, who planned to set up a museum of Asian art. But they are equally signicant for understanding intercultural relations and the role of objects in spreading knowledge about East Asia on our soil. Despite the fact that some items in these collections already adapted to the use and taste of Europeans, they were, due to their prevalence, the commonest representatives of East Asian cultures in our country.
Most of the postcards and photos have been preserved so far by the mariners’ relatives or museums.  
The acquisition of porcelain items was popular among mariners of both lower and higher ranks. Silk embroideries were bought less often, but lacquered wooden objects, paintings, statuettes, parts of Japanese samurai weapons, parts of clothing, fans and all kinds of other small useful objects as well as pieces of furniture, especially screens, were also popular, particularly among officers.


The exhibition presents the life stories of the items and their two-layered narratives: the origin, use and meaning of the items in their original environment, and their use and meaning in the new environment in the homes of mariners and their relatives.
The exhibition concludes with the founding of the first Slovenian shipping company Splošna plovba Piran in 1954 within the framework of the Socialist Yugoslavia and its first links with East Asia. 
The exhibition was set up by the Maritime Museum Piran in cooperation with the Department of Asian Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, and the Science Research Centre Koper within the framework of the project “Orphaned Objects: Treatment of East Asian Objects outside Organized Collecting Practices in the Slovenian Context” (J6-3133). Apart from Bogdana Marinac, the exhibition author, the texts were contributed by Tina Berdajs, Klara Hrvatin, Chikako Shigemori Bučar, Nataša Vampelj Suhadolnik, Maja Veselič and Nataša Visočnik Gerželj from the Department of Asian Studies of the Faculty of Arts Ljubljana and Helena Motoh from the Science Research Centre Koper.

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