VATICAN CITY – The Vatican Museums are home to some of the most magnificent works of art in the world, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to ancient Egyptian antiquities and a pavilion full of papal chariots. But one of the museum’s least-visited collections is becoming its most controversial ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.
The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, located near the food court and just outside the main exit, houses tens of thousands of artifacts and works of art made by indigenous peoples from around the world, much of it by Catholic missionaries for a Exhibition in 1925 was sent to Rome the Vatican Gardens.
The Vatican says the feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins were gifts to Pope Pius XI. who wanted to celebrate the global reach of the church, its missionaries, and the lives of the indigenous peoples they evangelize.
But indigenous groups from Canada, who were shown some items from the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet with Francis, are wondering how some of the works were actually acquired and what else is being stored could go on public display after they hadn’t been around for decades.
Some say they want her back.
“These pieces that are ours should come home,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Metis National Council, who led the Metis delegation that asked Francis to return the items.
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The restitution of Indigenous and Colonial artifacts, an urgent debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of the many agenda items awaiting Francis on his trip to Canada, which begins on Sunday.
The trip is primarily aimed at allowing the Pope to personally apologize on Canadian soil for the abuses suffered by indigenous peoples and their ancestors at the hands of Catholic missionaries in notorious hostels.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century through the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homeland and culture. The aim was to Christianize them and integrate them into mainstream society.
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Official Canadian policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress Indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions at home, including the Potlatch Prohibition of 1885, which banned First Nations comprehensive ceremony.
Government officials confiscated items used in the ceremony and other rituals, and some ended up in museums in Canada, the US and Europe, as well as private collections.
It is possible that indigenous people gave their handicrafts to Catholic missionaries for the 1925 Expo, or that the missionaries bought them. But historians question whether the items could have been freely offered given the power imbalances in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating Indigenous traditions, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as “cultural genocide.”
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“Because of the power structure at the time, it would be very difficult for me to accept that there was no compulsion in these communities to get these objects,” said Michael Galban, a Washoe and Mono Lake Paiute, director and curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center at State of New York.
Gloria Bell, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, agreed.
“Using the term ‘gift’ just obscures the whole story,” said Bell, who is of Metis ancestry and is finishing a book on the 1925 Expo. “We really need to question the context of how these cultural assets came to the Vatican and then their relationship to indigenous communities today.”
Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as spiritual advisor to the First Nations spring delegation, said she saw items belonging to her people that needed to be “rematriated” or taken home to the motherland.
“They can sense that they don’t belong there and don’t want to be there,” she said of the wampum belts, war clubs, and other items she documented with her cellphone camera.
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The Inuit delegation, meanwhile, inquired about an Inuit kayak in the collection.
The Vatican Museums have declined repeated requests for an interview or comment.
The newly designed gallery space Anima Mundi opened in 2019 with artifacts from Oceania as well as a temporary Amazon exhibition. Francis said the items were “cared for with the same fervor reserved for Renaissance masterpieces or Greek and Roman immortal statues.”
Opening the revamped Anima Mundi gallery in 2019, featuring artifacts from Oceania as well as a temporary Amazonian exhibition, Francis said the items were “cared for with the same passion reserved for Renaissance masterpieces or immortal Greek and Roman statues.” “.
You might miss the Anima Mundi if you spent the day at the Vatican Museums. Official tours don’t include it, and the audio guide, which includes descriptions of two dozen museums and galleries, completely ignores it. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there because there are no explanatory signs on display cases or wall text panels.
Margo Neale, who as director of the Australian National Museum’s Center for Indigenous Knowledge curated the Vatican’s 2010 Aboriginal exhibition at the Anima Mundi, said it was unacceptable that Indigenous collections today are not lacking information labels.
“They don’t get the respect they deserve by being named in any way,” said Neale, a member of the Kulin and Gumbaingirr nations. “They are beautifully displayed but culturally diminished by a lack of appreciation for anything other than their ‘exotic otherness.'”
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In Victoria, British Columbia, Gregory Scofield has amassed a communal collection of approximately 100 Metis beading, embroidery and other crafts, which he has tracked down and acquired through online auctions and through travel and made available to Metis scholars and artists.
Scofield, a Metis poet and author of the forthcoming book Our Grandmother’s Hands: Repatriating Metis Material Art, said any discussion with the Vatican should focus on allowing Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and ultimately sending items home bring.
“These pieces contain our stories,” he said. “These parts contain our history. These parts contain the energy of these ancestral grandmothers.”
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