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. But one of the museum’s least-visited collections becomes its most contested ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada which begins on Sunday July 23.
This trip is primarily intended 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. So what are the groups asking for, and what do we know about the greatest demand for returning items to colonized countries?
What are Aboriginal groups in Canada asking for?
The Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum in the Vatican houses tens of thousands of objects and works of art made by indigenous peoples from around the world, most of which were sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for an exhibition in 1925.
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.
Indigenous groups in Canada, who were shown a few items from the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet Francis, wonder how some of the works were actually acquired and wonder what might be stored after decades of inactivity. 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. . Caron said returning items from the missionary collection would help heal intergenerational trauma and allow Indigenous people to tell their own stories.
“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 Métis, we are reclaiming who we are. And these pieces, these historical pieces, they tell who we were.
What was the previous policy regarding aboriginal or aboriginal children in Canada?
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, 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 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. The Vatican’s catalog of its Americas collection, for example, features a painted wooden mask from the Haida Gwaii islands of British Columbia that “is related to the Potlatch ceremony.”
Are there any plans to return colonized artifacts?
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 the subject of a 2021 report in The Globe and Mail newspaper. Obed was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as saying that the director of the museum, the Reverend Nicola Mapelli, was open to discussing his return.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not rule out that Francis could repatriate some items on the next trip, telling reporters, “We will see what happens in the next few days.” There are international standards that guide the issue of the return of Indigenous cultural property, as well as individual museum policies.
The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, affirms that nations should provide redress, including restitution, for 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 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 has called ” cultural genocide”.
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.”
What is the Vatican collection and has it ever been returned?
The indigenous collection of the Holy See began centuries ago, with certain pre-Columbian objects sent to Pope Innocent XII in 1692, and has been amplified over the years by gifts to popes, especially during trips abroad. . Of the 100,000 items originally sent for the 1925 exhibition, the Vatican claims to have kept 40,000. It 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.
The Vatican Museums declined repeated requests for an interview or comment. But in its 2015 catalog of its collections from the Americas, the museum said it demonstrated the church’s high regard for the cultures of the world and its commitment to preserving their arts and artifacts, as evidenced by the excellent condition of the pieces.
The catalog also states that the museum welcomes dialogue with indigenous peoples and that the museum has suspended collaboration with Aboriginal communities in Australia ahead of an exhibition in 2010. The collection’s director, Mapelli, a missionary priest and associate visited these communities, took video testimonials and traveled the world in search of more information about the museum’s collections.
What is the condition of the Anima Mundi Gallery of Canadian Indigenous Artifacts?
Opening the renovated Anima Mundi gallery space in 2019 with objects 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”. He noted that some objects had recently been loaned to China and said the collection “invites us to experience human brotherhood, opposing the culture of resentment, racism and nationalism.”
Francis also praised the museum’s stated commitment to transparency, noting the glass partitions showing the storage facilities upstairs and the conservators’ workstations downstairs: “Transparency is an important value, especially in an ecclesiastical institution.
The tours and audio guide, which features descriptions of two dozen museums and galleries, ignore the gallery entirely. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there, as there is no explanatory signage on shop windows or wall text panels.
Margo Neale, who helped organize the Vatican’s 2010 Aboriginal exhibit as head of the Australian National Museum’s Center for Indigenous Knowledge, said: ‘They don’t get the respect they deserve by being named in any way whatever,” 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.”
Do governments of previously colonizing countries generally return artifacts?
Museums and governments across Europe – in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium – are grappling with the issue of their colonial and postcolonial collections, and leading the discussion on the legal transfer of ownership , say the experts.
With few exceptions, the trend is increasingly towards repatriation – agreements have recently been announced in Germany and France to return pieces of the famous Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
“There is a growing desire in a number of European countries to return objects, archives and ancestral remains,” said Jos van Beurden, who runs a group mailing list and Facebook group, Restitution Matters, following developments on the ground.
In Canada, the Royal British Columbia Museum has gone so far as to create a manual enabling indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural heritage. In Victoria, the city where the museum is located, Gregory Scofield amassed a community collection of approximately 100 Métis items of beadwork, embroidery and other work dating from 1840 to 1910, found and acquired through online auctions and through through travel and made available to Métis scholars and 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 Museums should focus on granting Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and , ultimately, on returning items home. “These rooms contain our stories,” he said. “These pieces hold our history. These pieces contain the energy of these ancestral grandmothers.