Vatican Museums' Lesser Known Collection Is a Contested One

Indigenous groups want back the artifacts and art 'gifted' for 1925 exhibition
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 23, 2022 5:30 AM CDT
They Were 'Gifts' to the Vatican. Now, a Call to Return Them
This undated photo provided by Gregory Scofield shows a pair of gauntlets he made in the late 19th-century Cree-Metif native Canadian traditional style. The Vatican's Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum houses tens of thousands of artifacts and art made by Indigenous peoples from around the world.   (Gregory Scofield via AP)

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, which begins Sunday. 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, reports the AP. 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. It's one of the many agenda items awaiting Francis on his trip, which 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, whose aim was to Christianize native students and assimilate them into mainstream society.

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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. As for the Anima Mundi, you might miss it 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—an omission that some say is unacceptable. (Read the full story.)

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