VATICAN CITY — The Vatican Museums house some of the greatest 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 church’s global reach, 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.
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.
Caron said returning the missionaries’ collection items would help heal the intergenerational trauma and allow tribal peoples to tell their own story.
“For so long we’ve had to hide who we are. We had to hide our culture and traditions to protect our people,” she said. “Right now, at this time when we can be publicly proud to be Metis, we are reclaiming who we are. And these pieces, these historical pieces, they tell stories about who we were.”
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 goal was to Christianize them and integrate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
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 agents 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. The Vatican’s catalog of its Americas collection, for example, shows a painted wooden mask from the Haida Gwaii Islands in British Columbia that is “related to the potlatch ceremony.”
During the spring visit, Natan Obed, who led the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami delegation, raised the issue of an Inuit kayak in the collection, which was featured in a 2021 report in The Globe and Mail newspaper. Obed was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. quoted as saying the museum director, Rev. Nicola Mapelli, is open to talks about his return.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not rule out that Francis could bring back some items during the upcoming trip, telling reporters: “We will see what happens in the coming days.”
There are international standards guiding the issue of returning Indigenous cultural property, as well as individual museum policies. For example, the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires that states should make redress for cultural, religious and intellectual property that has been taken from them “without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws and traditions”, also through returns and customs”.
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 power imbalances in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating indigenous traditions, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as a “cultural genocide.”
“With the power structure of 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 Seneca Art & Cultural Center in upstate 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.”
The Holy See’s indigenous collection began centuries ago with some pre-Columbian objects presented to Pope Innocent XII in 1692. were sent, and has been augmented over the years with gifts given to popes, particularly on trips abroad. Of the 100,000 items originally sent for the 1925 Exposition, the Vatican says it has preserved 40,000.
It repatriated some items. In 2021, Vatican News reported that the Anima Mundi had recently returned to Ecuador with a shrunken head used in rituals by the Jivaroan peoples of the Amazon.
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.
“You get a 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.
The Vatican Museums have declined repeated requests for an interview or comment.
But in its 2015 catalog of its American holdings, the museum said they demonstrated the church’s deep appreciation for world cultures and commitment to preserving its art and artifacts, as evidenced by the excellent condition of the pieces.
The catalog also said the museum welcomes dialogue with Indigenous peoples, and the museum put its collaboration with Australia’s Indigenous People on hold ahead of an exhibition in 2010. Collection director Mapelli, a missionary and associate, visited these communities, made video testimonies, and traveled the world to learn more about the museum’s holdings.
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.” “.
Noting that some items have recently been loaned to China, he said the collection “invites us to live human brotherhood and contrast the culture of resentment, racism and nationalism.”
Francis also praised the museum’s stated commitment to transparency, noting the glass partitions showing the storage rooms upstairs and the conservators’ workspaces downstairs: “Transparency is an important value, especially in an ecclesiastical institution.”
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 helped curate the Vatican’s 2010 Aboriginal exhibition as head of the Australian National Museum’s Center for Indigenous Knowledge, 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 recognition of anything but their ‘exotic otherness.'”
It was not clear if the current exhibition was still a work in progress and labels might be added; A text board at the gallery entrance asks for donations to finance the collection.
Museums and governments across Europe — in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium — are grappling with the issue of their colonial and post-colonial collections and spearheading the debate over the legal repossession of property, experts say. With some exceptions, the trend is increasingly towards repatriation – agreements were recently announced in Germany and France to return pieces of the famous Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
“There is a growing willingness in a number of European countries to return objects, archives and ancestral remains,” said Jos van Beurden, who runs a group email list and Facebook group called Restitution Matters, commenting on developments in the field tracked.
In Canada, the Royal British Columbia Museum has gone so far as to create a handbook empowering Indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural heritage.
In Victoria, the city where the museum is located, Gregory Scofield has assembled a communal collection of about 100 Metis beadwork, embroidery and other crafts from the years 1840 to 1910, tracked down and acquired through online auctions and through travel and to the Metis scholars and artists were made available.
Scofield, a Metis poet and author of the forthcoming book Our Grandmother’s Hands: Repatriating Metis Material Art, said any discussion with the Vatican Museums should focus on allowing Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and ultimately bringing items home bring to.
“These pieces contain our stories,” he said. “These pieces hold our history. These parts contain the energy of those ancestral grandmothers.”
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