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 filled with papal chariots. But one of the museum’s least-visited collections becomes its most contested ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.
The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, located near the food court and just before the main exit, houses tens of thousands of artifacts and works of art made by indigenous peoples from around the world, including a large part was sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for a 1925 exhibition at 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 peoples’ lives natives whom they evangelized.
But Indigenous groups in Canada, who were shown a few items from the collection when they visited the Vatican last spring to meet Francis, are wondering how some of the works were actually acquired and wondering what might be in storage. after decades without being on public display.
Some say they want them back.
“These pieces that belong to us should come home,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, who led the Métis delegation that asked Francis to return the items.
The restitution of Indigenous and colonial-era artifacts, a pressing debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of the many agenda items awaiting Francis during his trip to Canada. , which begins on Sunday.
The main purpose of the trip is to allow the Pope to apologize in person, on Canadian soil, for the abuses that Indigenous peoples and their ancestors suffered at the hands of Catholic missionaries in notorious residential schools.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and cultures. The goal was to Christianize them and assimilate them into mainstream society.
Official Canadian policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress Indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions in the country, including the Potlatch ban of 1885 which prohibited full First Nations ceremony.
Government agents confiscated items used in the ceremony and other rituals, and some of them ended up in museums in Canada, the United States and Europe, as well as in private collections.
It is possible that the indigenous peoples gave their works to the Catholic missionaries for the 1925 exhibition or that the missionaries bought them. But historians question whether the items could have been offered for free given the power imbalances at play in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating Indigenous traditions, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called ” cultural genocide”.
“By the power structure of what was happening at that time, it would be very difficult for me to accept that there was no coercion in those communities to get those items,” said Michael Galban, a Washoe and Mono Lake Paiute who is director and curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center in upstate New York.
Gloria Bell, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, agrees.
“Using the term ‘gift’ just covers the whole story,” said Bell, who is of mixed-race ancestry and is finishing a book on the 1925 Exposition. which these cultural goods arrived at the Vatican, and then also on their relationship with the indigenous communities today.”
Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as a spiritual advisor to the First Nations spring delegation, said she saw items that belonged to her people and needed to be “remarriaged” or brought home to the homeland.
“You can feel it’s not where they belong and it’s not where they want to be,” she said of the wampum belts, war clubs and other items that she documented with her phone’s camera.
The Inuit delegation, for its part, inquired about an Inuit kayak in the collection.
The Vatican Museums declined repeated requests for an interview or comment.
Opening the renovated Anima Mundi gallery space in 2019 with artefacts from Oceania as well as a temporary exhibition on the Amazon, Francis said the objects were maintained “with the same passion reserved for the masterpieces of the Renaissance or to the immortal Greek and Roman statues”.
You might miss the Anima Mundi if you were to spend the day in the Vatican Museums. Official tours don’t include it, and the audio guide, which features descriptions of two dozen museums and galleries, completely ignores it. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there because there is no explanatory signage on shop windows or wall text panels.
Margo Neale, who helped curate the 2010 Vatican Aboriginal exhibit at the Anima Mundi as director of the Australian National Museum’s Center for Indigenous Knowledge, said it is unacceptable that Indigenous collections are missing today informative 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 are culturally diminished by the lack of recognition of anything other than their ‘exotic otherness’.”
In Victoria, British Columbia, Gregory Scofield amassed a community collection of approximately 100 items of beadwork, embroidery, and other Métis work that he tracked down and acquired through online auctions and through travel and made available to scholars and Métis artists.
Scofield, a Métis poet and author of the forthcoming book “Our Grandmother’s Hands: Repatriating Métis Material Art,” said any discussion with the Vatican should focus on granting Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and, in ultimately, on returning the items home.
“These rooms contain our stories,” he said. “These pieces hold our history. These pieces hold the energy of those ancestral grandmothers.”
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