VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican Museums are home to some of the most magnificent artworks 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 contested before Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.
The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, located near the food court and right before the main exit, houses tens of thousands of artifacts and art made by Indigenous peoples from around the world, much of it sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for a 1925 exhibition in 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 evangelized.
But Indigenous groups from Canada, who were shown a few items in the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet with Francis, question how some of the works were actually acquired and wonder what else may be in storage after decades of not 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 Metis National Council, who headed the Metis delegation that asked Francis to return the items.
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 on his trip to Canada, which begins Sunday.
The trip is aimed primarily at allowing the pope to apologize in person, on Canadian soil, for abuses Indigenous people and their ancestors suffered at the hands of Catholic missionaries in notorious residential schools.
Caron said returning the missionary collection items would help heal the intergenerational trauma and enable Indigenous peoples to tell their own story.
“For so long we had to hide who we were. We had to hide our culture and hide our traditions to keep our people safe,” she said. “Right now, in this time when we can publicly be proud to be Metis, we are reclaiming who we are. And these pieces, these historic pieces, they tell stories of who we were.”
More than 150,000 Native 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 culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
Official Canadian policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress Indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions at home, including the 1885 Potlatch Ban that prohibited the integral 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 U.S. and Europe, as well as private collections. The Vatican’s catalogue of its Americas collection, for example, features a wooden painted mask from the Haida Gwaii islands of British Columbia that “is related to the Potlatch ceremony.”
During the spring visit, Natan Obed, who headed the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami delegation, raised the issue of an Inuit kayak in the collection that was featured in a 2021 report in The Globe and Mail newspaper. Obed was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as saying the museum head, the Rev. Nicola Mapelli, was open to discussing its return.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni didn’t rule out that Francis might repatriate some items during the coming trip, telling reporters: “We’ll 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. The 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, asserts that nations should provide redress, including through restitution, of cultural, religious and spiritual property taken “without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
It is possible Indigenous peoples gave their handiworks to Catholic missionaries for the 1925 expo or that the missionaries bought them. But historians question whether the items could have been offered freely given the power imbalances at play in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating Indigenous traditions, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called “cultural genocide.”
“By the power structure of what was going on at that time, it would be very hard for me to accept that there wasn’t some coercion going on in those communities to get these objects,” 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 McGill University’s department of art history and communication studies, agreed.
“Using the term ‘gift’ just covers up the whole history,” said Bell, who is of Metis ancestry and is completing a book about the 1925 expo. “We really need to question the context of how these cultural belongings got to the Vatican, and then also their relation to Indigenous communities today.”
The Holy See’s Indigenous collection began centuries ago, with some pre-Columbian items sent to Pope Innocent XII in 1692, and has been amplified over the years by gifts to popes, especially on foreign trips. Of the 100,000 items originally sent for the 1925 exhibit, the Vatican says it has kept 40,000.
It has repatriated some items. In 2021, Vatican News reported that the Anima Mundi had recently returned to Ecuador a shrunken head used in rituals by the Jivaroan peoples of the Amazon.
Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as spiritual adviser to the spring First Nations delegation, said she saw items that belong to her people and need to be “rematriated,” or brought back home to the motherland.
“You can sense that that’s not where they belong and that’s not where they want to be,” she said of the wampum belts, war clubs and other items she documented with her phone camera.
The Vatican Museums declined repeated requests for an interview or comment.
But in its 2015 catalogue of its Americas holdings, the museum said they demonstrated the church’s great esteem for world cultures and its commitment to preserving their arts and artifacts, as evidenced by the excellent condition of the pieces.
The catalogue also said the museum welcomes dialogue with Indigenous peoples, and the museum has held up its collaboration with Aboriginal communities in Australia before a 2010 exhibit. The collection’s director, Mapelli, a missionary priest and an associate visited those communities, took video testimonies and traveled the world seeking more information about the museum’s holdings.
Opening the revamped Anima Mundi gallery space in 2019 with artifacts from Oceania as well as a temporary Amazon exhibit, Francis said the items were cared for “with the same passion reserved for the masterpieces of the Renaissance or the immortal Greek and Roman statues.”
He noted that some items had recently been loaned to China and said the collection “invites us to live human fraternity, contrasting the culture of rancor, racism and nationalism.”
Francis also praised the museum’s stated commitment to transparency, noting the glass partitions showing the storage facilities upstairs and the restorers’ workstations on the main floor: “Transparency is an important value, above all in an ecclesiastic institution.”
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, ignores it entirely. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there, because there is no explanatory signage on display cases or wall text panels.
Margo Neale, who helped curate the Vatican's 2010 Aboriginal exhibition as head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges at the Australian National Museum, said it is unacceptable for Indigenous collections today to lack informational labels.
“They are not being given 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 acknowledgement of anything other than their ‘exotic otherness.’”
It wasn’t clear if the current exhibition was a work in progress with labels eventually to be added; at the gallery entrance, a text panel asks for donations to fund the collection.
Museums and governments around Europe — in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium — are grappling with the question of their colonial and postcolonial collections, and leading the discussion of legally transferring property back, experts say. With some exceptions, the trend is increasingly toward repatriation — recently agreements were announced in Germany and France to return pieces of the famed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
“There is a certain willingness growing in a number of European countries to return objects and archives and ancestral remains,” said Jos van Beurden, who runs a group email list and a Facebook group, Restitution Matters, that tracks developments in the field.
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 amassed a community collection of about 100 items of Metis beadwork, embroidery and other workmanship dating from 1840 to 1910, tracked down and acquired via 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 Museums should focus on granting Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and, ultimately, bringing items home.
“These pieces hold our stories,” he said. “These pieces hold our history. These pieces hold the energy of those ancestral grandmothers.”
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