The Zagreb Ethnographic Museum has the largest and most valuable collections of items pertaining to traditional non-European cultures in Croatia. They include around 5,000 exhibits from all continents. The most valuable and the most complete are collections originating from South America (Brasil and Paraguay), Africa (Congo and Ethiopia), Asia (Bengal, Japan, China), Australia, and Melanesia. The items were made of all kinds of materials: Textile, wood, metal, leather, paper, ivory, and vegetable-origin substances. Their purposes are equally varied, since they include clothes, furniture, weapons, tools, utility objects, adornments, instruments, and religious items.
The Department's establishment is associated with the establishment and development of the Museum itself, as well as of museological activities in Croatia in general.
Most collections were obtained in the second half of the 19th c., courtesy of people of Croatian descent.
Among them, we should single out Dragutin Lerman, originally from Pozega. In the 1882-1896 period, he had lived and worked, with some interruptions, in the then Belgian Congo, where he had collected a considerable number of valuable authentic items which he later donated to the National Museum. Today, his collection is the Department's most valuable part, not only due to the items' age and number, but also due to its comprehensive coverage of the Central African natives' material culture. As particularly valuable items, which are a true match to similar exhibits found in related European museums in terms of their cultural and historic significance, as well as their artistic expression, we may mention numerous wooden sculptures, arms, clothes, utility objects, and musical instruments.
Among other things, Lerman was a member of Henry Morton Stanley's expedition. Somewhat later, he was the Governor of the East Kwango province. He kept a diary of his life and work in Congo, while he also left behind numerous letters.
Brothers Stevo and Mirko Seljan, originally from Karlovac, were, towards the end of the 19th c., exploring the yet unknown parts of Eastern Africa and South America. Their first joint venture were explorations near Rudolph's and Stephany's lake in Africa. For their achievements while in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian emperor Menelik honoured them with the Ethiopian Star and the Solomon's Cross decorations. Somewhat later, while staying in South America and working with Croatian immigrants, they collected a rich collection of items belonging to native tribes from the Matto Grosso and Paraguay area.
As regards major donors, we should also mention Tibor Sekelj, esperantist and ethnologist/explorer, who travelled accross South America, Australia, and Melanesia in the 50's and 60's. Today, his rich collection is on display at the Museum.
Milka Trnina, a world famous opera singer, left a valuable collection of Japanese works of art to the Museum. Towards the beginning of the century, she was given these objects of art, as a token of appreciation, by J. Bigelow from Boston, famous japanologist and owner of one among the largest and most outstanding Japanese art collections in the States.
The items have been classified and exhibited according to their geographic origin (Eastern Africa, Congo, South Africa, India and Southeastern Asia, Oceania, Melanesia, Australia, China, Japan, and South America), while, within individual showcases, they have been grouped as per thematic relation.