COULD VATICAN ETHNOLOGY MUSEUM BE HOLDING ARTEFACTS WITH DOUBTFUL HISTORIES?
The central issue can be ascribed to the fact that most of these Europeans intended, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy what was given in the African cultural world so as to implant that which is considered, in their view, human, civilised, worthy, and valuable. The same African culture which was belittled by the Europeans had produced many objects and artefacts which both the colonialists and missionaries plundered and shipped to Europe. To date, these treasures remain in museums and mission houses throughout Europe.
Chibueze Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue
Mbulu-ngulu guardian of relics, Kota people, Gabon, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican City, Italy.
When I first read in the excellent book by Dr.
Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures,
that the Vatican Ethnology Museum was holding African artefacts that were sent for an exhibition but were not all returned, I was shocked:
In 1925 Pope Pius XI organized a missionary exhibition extolling missionary work all over the non-western world. About 100,000 items were sent and after the exhibition only about half were returned. The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which illuminated pagan Rome
As is well-known, the relations between Christian churches, and African artefacts, above-all, sculptures, have not been without serious fundamental problems. Ludovic Lado, a Cameroonian Catholic priest, describes the contact between the Catholic Church and African religions as a problematic encounter, ethnocentric and the attitude of the Church asiconoclastic in its attitudes towards African religions:
the evangelization of sub-Saharan Africa took place within the context of colonisation. For all the benefits it brought (not only the preaching of the gospel, but also the foundation of schools and hospitals), it was essentially a violent enterprise. Missionary societies tended to work in areas where their home governments were directly involved, behaving often as cultural agents of their own nations. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, Christianity reached black Africa as part of the Western campaign of civilisation meant to redeem the dark continent from the claws of ignorance and devilish superstition.The heroic commitment of Christian missionaries, not only to the preaching of the gospel but also to the implantation of schools and hospitals, was part of this general programme of elevating the primitive African to the level of the civilised Westerner. (2)
Basically, the churches regarded African sculptures, as part of African culture, as elements of a heathen, pagan culture along with the wild dances and music which accompanied pagan rites. They all had to go and be replaced by Christian religion which meant European culture. In this regard, the churches and the colonialist governments worked for the same final objective; deafricanize Africans and make them amenable to European domination.
Ajibade, Omon and Oloidi have written that
The most compelling reason for the initial lack of acceptance of African sculptures as sculptures is the denial by western military and missionary colonizers who contemplated the works as fetish, tribal and nonsensical rather than as works of art demanding of merit.
It is common knowledge that during the colonial period, many Christian churches urged converted Africans to destroy sculptures that were considered pagan and therefore incompatible with the new religion of Christianity. To this end, many missionaries requested the new converts to bring their sculptures, termed fetishes (from the Portuguese feitio) for burning. It is stated in the foreword to a catalogue of Society of African Missions:
It must be admitted that until the end of the 19th century and even into this century many Christian missionaries regarded the peoples and cultures among which they worked as inferior to those of the West. The artifacts of these peoples were often judged ugly and those having any connection with so-called pagan religious practices were often collected and burnt.
It was alleged that many priests burned part of the collected objects so that all could see that the so called pagan objects had been destroyed but many of the objects remained intact with the priests and nobody knew whatever happened to them later. Apparently, those sculptures that were not destroyed were shipped secretly to Europe where we can to-day read that many museums received gifts from missionaries who had been in Africa. Documents from many museums indicate the pivotal role of the missionaries in creating collections or establishing museums.
Thus we read in the catalogue of the Collection du Muse Africain de Lyon, Afrique en Rsonance :
Nous exprimons toute notre reconnaissance et notre gratitude a la Socit des Missions Africaines, qui est a lorigine de lexistence de ce Muse et qui a confie en 2012 la gestion de lensemble de sa trs riche collection notre association
Kente, Asante, Ghana, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
It was therefore with great interest that I read the catalogue of the Vatican Ethnology Museum entitled Ethnos; Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection which I received recently. (6)
The book starts with what is called Index” that shows the contents. After a foreword, a presentation and preface, we are given a brief history of the Vatican Ethnological Museum. Then follows a chapter on Indigenous Collections which precedes chapters on Australia: Reconnecting and Keeping Culture Alive, Christian Indigenous Art, Africa, Asia, Oceania and America.
Then follows chapters entitled Deep History Artefacts, Boats and Musical Instruments , Photographic Collections, Oriental Collections, Far East Southern Asia, South East Asia, Near and Middle East, and Christian Oriental Art. I must confess I had some difficulty in going through all these titles and distinguishing them as well as finding the logic of the division of chapters. The catalogue seems to have had many problems at birth.
Korea. Yanggwan, Ritual Crown, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
I found certain statements in the Forward, Presentation and Preface remarkable. We read in the Forward that:
Established by Pope Pius XI in 1926, the Ethnological Museum expresses the appreciation and positive outlook that the Catholic Church, since its very beginning, has had and continues to have toward all cultures around the world. The sentiment is reciprocal: it is not by chance that the majority of works held in the Ethnological Museum are the result of donations to the Pontiff throughout the centuries by people belonging to the most diverse cultures and religions, from anonymous Australian Aborigines to famous Heads of State. (7)
The Foreword continues to state
The catalogue has been enriched with photographs of people and landscapes, included with the precise aim of contextualising the objects described and giving a suggestion of what will be in more depth in successive catalogues, showing that these are expressions of living culture, immersed in a natural world that Pope Benedict XVI teaches us to admire and respect, as He teaches us to respect the culture and traditions of all peoples. (8)
We read again:
I present Ethos: Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection. It is a complex and refined work, reflecting the complexity and refinement of the cultures of the entire world, and the respect that the Catholic Church has for these cultures.
We also find in the Preface by the Director of the museum a reference to respect for other cultures:
My wish, shared also by Katherine Aigner and Nadia Fiussello, is that this catalogue might contribute to the worldwide battle to preserve not only the natural environment and the gifts of Mother Earth, but also and above all the beauty and variety of cultures of the world, against all attempts to destroy them or reduce them to a standard model of thought and lifestyles.
These various attempts to present the Catholic Church as having been always respectful of other peoples, their cultures and traditions, will not convince anyone with the faintest knowledge about Christian missionary work outside Europe and especially, in Africa. The Churches of Europe have always regarded people in Africa as heathens whose pagan traditions should be destroyed and replaced by Christian European religion and culture. This was the basic aim of missionary work and without this assumption, Christian missionary work and colonialism become difficult to understand. Indeed without this assumption much that has been written about Africa and Africans would be meaningless. Many classics such as Mongo Betis Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956) would be incomprehensible without the assumption of European superiority and the efforts made by the colonialists and the missionaries to implement that assumption.
We are here not concerned with an evaluation of missionary work and with its basic aims but with the attempts in this catalogue to present the Church as having always been a defender of diversity of cultures and preservation of traditions in the non-European countries that came under colonial domination, an enterprise in which the Churches played a major role. To attempt to replace the religions and cultures of Africans by European religions and cultures can surely not be presented as respect of African traditions. We are inclined to accept this statement from Dr. Greenfield cited already above:
The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which illuminated pagan Rome.
Christian missionaries could only carry on their work within the parameters set by the colonial government through pacification i.e. subjugation and domination by force of arms of African societies. The repetition of Catholic Churchs respect for cultures and peoples can only create suspicion that we are facing here a massive attempt at intoxication and bending of the facts of history already recorded in many books in several languages.
According to the catalogue, At the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) as a sign of Catholic Churchs respect for the culture, arts and religious traditions of the peoples throughout the world, wished to organize a major event: the 1925 Vatican Exhibition.
The catalogue attributes to the foundation of the museum principles that would only be adopted much later by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Father Jozef Penkowski states in the same source cited by Prof. Greenfield, The Vatican Collections Papacy and Art as follows.
Moreover, ,especially following the innovative ideas of the Second Vatican Council by the 1960s the concept of mission work had changed radically, especially following the innovative ideas of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The goal was no longer to Europeanize the Third World, but instead to establish foundations of Christianity in local cultures. The position of the Church with repect to other religions had also changed, encouraging open dialogue rather than confrontation. Promoting an understanding of other religions was considered essential.
The idea of an inherent European superiority seems to be so embedded in European minds that even when writing about this changed policy, Penkowski could not help writing: Works relating to the worlds higher religions are exhibited in both geographic and chronological arrangements. and a rich collection of indigenous Christian art from Third World countries also is shown. (13)
The exhibition that opened on 21 December 1924 was a great success and some 100,000 works were sent to the Vatican from all over the world. The success of the exhibition that ended on 10th January 1926 convinced the Pope to turn it into a permanent event in form of a museum. The new museum was opened in 21 December 1927. The museum had received donations and gifts from all over the world.
According to the catalogue The great religions and spirituality of Europe and Asia were represented on the first floor, and on the second, the other continents: Africa, America, Australia, Oceania, and the tribal groups of Asia,
The short account of the history of the Vatican Ethnology Museum ends with this statement The wish to culturally reconnect the objects with the peoples who donated them in the past, ideally closing a circle, means exactly the wish to give a voice to every people and culture on Earth through the wealth of works held in the Ethnological Museum. (15)
Goddesses Shri and Bhumi, Southern India, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
That the peoples of the countries from which the objects came might wish to have them back so that they could tell their own history and development, did not occur to the author of the short history of the Vatican Ethnology Museum. Here the museum is obviously following the well-known and discredited position of the so-called major museums as elaborated in the notoriousDeclaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums.
I must state quite clearly that I was not at all impressed by the pages dealing with indigenous collections as relates to Africa. The modern photos seemed to be mainly aimed at showing that African culture and civilization have remained at a certain level of development. A large photo covering two pages depicts a San man, almost naked and a cheetah, a Zulu, half naked making a shield, and two pages photo of women said to be performing initiation rites in Gabon. But what irritated me most was the reference to Africans worshipping their ancestors: In many African religious traditions ancestors were and still are strongly worshipped. The importance of this cult is reflected in the philosophy that guided Fr. Penkowskis choice of objects for exhibit in the Museum.
How often must Africans explain that reverence for ancestors is not worship of these important parents? Nor is the honour and reverence paid to ancestors worship or cult of ancestors. Is the remembrance of All Souls Day a worship of those souls that have departed? Surely it is high time people abandoned erroneous ideas of early ethnologists and missionaries. In any case, intellectuals and museum officials should have abandoned such ideas in view of the abundant evidence existing long ago.
Frank Willet, a foremost scholar on Nigerian art, has written: In general, Christian missionaries, even up to the present day have been culpably ignorant of indigenous African religions and in attempting to undermine them have often attacked the sculptures which gave expression to their ideas, in the mistaken belief that they were idols and object of worship.
On turning to the chapter dealing Indigenous Collections-America, I was surprised to find a presentation of the work of a sculptor who was not even from America but from Europe. (19) The work of artist Ferdinand Pettrich is given considerable space even though he was from Germany as the catalogue itself states. True, the artist had spent some eight years among the indigenous peoples and is said to have used indigenous persons as his models. But does this justify the inclusion of his work under indigenous collection? Many African artists have spent more than thirty years in European countries living among the indigenous peoples there. Would their work be included in works of the indigenous people of Europe? Classifications must have some meaning. It would have been better to treat the work of the German artist under a separate heading.
Still under indigenous collection, we have a section entitled Deep History, Artefacts, Boats and Musical Instruments, where we see some interesting stones, boats and musical instruments. I have difficulty in seeing the connections between these different objects and why they should be included in the same chapter. I found no explanation in the catalogue how boats and musical instruments are related. Similarly, a section entitled Photographic Collection shows us various photographs, presumably all taken by Europeans. I could not see why they come under indigenous collections.
The section on indigenous collection concludes with a statement that appears contestable: The Ethnological Museum is there to give voice to all of them, and through its collection it is possible to hear their voices, the voices of all the different peoples and cultures of the world and the splendour of the natural world, which we share.
We must confess that we did not hear the voices of the indigenous peoples; however one defines them on the pages we read. We could hear only the voices of the Western world that viewed the objects and the peoples discussed as less developed people the Europeans studied as objects of interest and curiosity. The photos in particular displayed a Western view of non-Western peoples and their way of life.
The rest of the catalogue, entitled Oriental Collections deals with Far East, Southern Asia, South-East Asia, Near and Middle East and ends with a chapter on Christian Oriental Art.
The Oriental collections have some very beautiful sculptures and vases. In this part of the catalogue, we read for the first time the names of some of the donors of artefacts who all happen to be Europeans. (21) Were there no African or Asian donors? If most of the objects in the museum were donations, surely there must be a record of the donors. We also see in this section very interesting photos of buildings and sites that are not part of the museums collections.
It would have been interesting to receive some information about the individuals or communities that made the various gifts to the Pope. Their addresses must still be available since we have been informed that at least half the donations were returned. This must mean returned to the senders.
We were also disappointed that writing in this 21st Century there is no mention of restitution or return of cultural objects. Is the Vaticans Ethnological Museum not part of the world of museums? We would indeed have expected the Vatican Ethnological Museum to take the lead in stressing to the other museums, especially, the European museums, that the injunction, Thou shall not steal, also applies to cultural objects and to European museums too. Now that we have a vast number of persons keen on destroying cultural artefacts of others or even of their own, we surely need to assert the presence and authority of moral prescriptions in this area. It is true though that many Western art critics and museums have banned morality from discussions on restitution and seek refuge in law.
In any case, the Vatican Ethnology Museum should look at its collections to ensure that there are no artefacts with doubtful histories. The great number of artefacts in the museum should be examined with a view to determine whether some of the artefacts should not be returned to the peoples and countries from where they originally came. Some of the artefacts may have been genuine gifts but given the colonial situation of structural violence many gifts may have been made reluctantly. Most artefacts were due to the collecting activities of the missionaries who wielded a lot of power over many Africans.
Those peoples who were assumed in the past not to be able to speak for themselves must now surely be in a position to do so and their artefacts could also be useful in that process of revival of their cultures after decades of colonial suppression.
The assumption that certain people could not speak for themselves is surely, a purely imperialistic invention to justify the domination of non-European peoples. We know of no people in the history of mankind that could not speak for themselves. Most peoples have a language, literature, poetry, music, religion, and a history. Museums and intellectuals should not contribute to solidifying imperialist inventions that only served to justify the domination of other peoples.
Anyone, with some information or knowledge about Africa would be shocked by this arrogant assumption which in the past was taken for granted and not questioned. If we consider the Asante (Ghana), their culture, religion, their military organization, their literature and political system, it would be impossible to think they were ever in their history of several centuries, not able to speak for themselves. Similarly, if we consider, the history, religion and cosmology of the Yoruba (Nigeria), their culture, literature, songs and dance, theatre, much of which has survived across the Atlantic in Brazil, we cannot for a second doubt that they can speak for themselves. And what about Benin (Edo,Nigeria) with the centuries old monarchy headed by the Obas and the splendid arts and culture exemplified by the fabulous Benin Bronzes now held hostage in Western museums? Can one for a second imagine that peoples that have produced such beautiful artworks are unable to speak for themselves?
Incidentally, why are there no European artefacts and art works in the Vatican Ethnology Museum? Are Europeans not part of our world? Do their artefacts not constitute an integral part of the diversity of cultures which is often mentioned in the Catalogue? Where then is the equal respect of cultures?
Could it well be that the Europeans and their cultures are considered superior and in a special category that should not be mixed with the cultures and arts of peoples considered heathen, wild and primitive? A revised edition of the catalogue of the Vatican Ethnological Museum should clarify some of these points.
Kwame Opoku, 5 February, 2015.
Chest, Korea, now in Vatican Ethnological Museum, Vatican.
Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 100. Dr. Greenfield refers to official Vatican publication as the source for this observation. See The Vatican Collections, The Papacy and Art, official publication authorized by the Vatican Museums, New York, 1982, p. 226. The statement attributed to the Pope may be compared to the view of the notorious Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, Hugh Trevor-Roper on the role of history:
If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe
, Thames and Hudson<, 1965, p.9.
2. Ludovic Lado, The Roman Catholic Church and African Religions: A Problematic Encounter,
Lado discusses in greater detail the encounter between the Catholic religion and African religions in his, Catholic Pentecostalism and the Paradoxes of Africanization Process of Localization in a Catholic Charismatic Movement in Cameroon, Brill N. V. Leiden, 2009.
A well-known Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola
wrote Almost everywhere during the last years of the nineteenth century, missionaries supported the partition of Africa in the belief that European rule would facilitate their work and enable them to demolish those aspects of African culture that stand in the way of Christianity. Indeed, there were missionaries who believed that the agenda of colonialism in Africa was similar to that of Christianity. In the words of one such person, the Rev. Jan H .Boer of the Sudan United Mission;
“Colonialism is a form of imperialism based on a divine mandate and designed to bring liberation – spiritual, cultural, economic and political – by sharing the blessings of the Christ-inspired civilization of the West with a people suffering under satanic oppression, ignorance and disease, effected by a combination of political, economic and religious forces that cooperate under a regime seeking the benefit of both ruler and ruled.“.
Other missionaries might have made the point differently or less strongly, but the perception that their goals were colonial in spirit was very common
Falola, Toyin (2001) Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. University of Rochester Press, p. 32.
Another Nigerian intellectual, teaching at Augsburg University, Germany, Professor Chibueze Udeani has written
Africa, as noted by H. Rucker, was just another name for non-Europe. African traditional religions were consequently non-Christian and a priori anti-Christendom. Consequently European culture was taken to be identical with Christianity and what was not European was seen as not Christian. African religiosity and cultural standards were judged then by Western theological standards. As a result Africans were seen as godless heathens. The Africans, in this sense, represented the antithesis of the humanity, for the standard of participation in humanity was determined by how near they stood to the European culture. Adjectives for Africans were mainly negative; the African life was seen as primitive and the Africans themselves, as H. Rucker continued, were seen as cannibals. Their religion was considered to be superstition, idolatry, devils mischief, magic, fetishism, animism, polytheism, ancestor worship, offspring/product of unenlightenment and blooming imagination. Their thought pattern was seen as pre-logical.
Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue – Igbo Culture and the Message of Christ,
Editions Rodopi B. V., Amsterdam, New York, NY 2007, p. 81.
Okot PBitek, wrote in his famous book Decolonizing African Religions, 2011, Diasporic Africa Press, New York, (with foreword by the Ghanaian philosopher, Kwesi Wiredu p.25):
The Christian mission to Africa was double-edged. The missionaries came to preach gospel as well as to civilize,, and in their role of civilizers they were at one with the colonizing forces; indeed they were an important vehicle of Western imperialism<which readily lent to the churches its wealth, power and influence. As Beetham put it With the partition of Africa following the Berlin conference European rule began to provide an umbrella of law and order for missionary activity> A settled government, the telegraph the railway- all helped
The missionaries came with the same arrogant assumptions that they represented a higher civilization indeed perhaps that no civilization existed in Africa. Western values and customs were to them identical with Christian morality
V.Y. Mudimbe wrote in The Invention of Africa .James Curry, London, 1988, p. 47: Obviously< the missionarys objectives had to be co-extensive with his countrys political and cultural perspectives on colonization as well as with the Christian view of his mission. With equal enthusiasm he served as agent of a political empire a representative of a civilization and as an envoy of God. There is no essential contradiction between these roles All of them implied the same purpose; the conversion of African minds and space A. J. Christopher rightly observes that missionaries<possibly more than members of other branches of the colonial establishment<aimed at the radical transformation of indigenous societyThey therefore sought<whether consciously or unconsciously<the destruction of pre-colonial societies and their replacement by new Christian societies in the image of Europe.
Kwame Bediako, a Ghanaian intellectual, wrote
There are African intellectual who, reacting to the historical entanglement of the Christian missionary endeavour with western colonial dominance, have retained a suspicion of the Christian religion in Africa. Christianity in Africa,
Edinburgh University Press, 1995, p. 178.
Dr Bediako who does not share this suspicion provides interesting arguments to
oppose the position adopted by many African intellectuals. His book is worth reading.
See also on the involvement of missionaries in the colonial enterprise.
Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 161-186.
Babson Ajibade, Emekpe Omon and Wole Oloidi, African Arts in Postcolonial Context: New Old Meaning for Sculptures in Nigeria,
Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences
ear: 2011 | Volume: 8 | Issue: 4 | Page No.:172-180
4. African Sculptures from the collection of the Society of African Missions
See also, Julian Bondaz, Autels et Ftiches, Afrique en Rsonance, 2014, 5 Continents Editions, p.61 La circulation des images et des objets servait ainsi la mise en scne du proslytisme et la mise en rcit des conversions, de manire heureusement moins violente que la destruction des ftiches par certains missionnaire catholiques et surtout protestants (ainsi que par certain prophtes africains ou par des prdicateurs musulmans).
Claude Prudhomme, Europe-Afrique – Echange Ingale , in LAfrique de nos Rserves, 5 Continents Editions, 2011, p. 26 :
Destruction des objets et des rites accuses de rendre un culte a Satan, ou enfouissement de ceux-ci pour les recouvrir par les objets et les rites chrtiens. Le premier rflexe missionnaire nincline pas lempathie pour les culture africaines
5. 2014, 5 Continents Edition, pp. 7, 10 ; see also A. E. Coombes, op. cit. pp. 161, 168.
What I want to suggest in this chapter is that it was through the careful cultivation of a distinct, though by no means disinterested, position in relation to the colonial enterprise, that the home mission was particularly effective in disseminating an image of Africa and the African that ultimately served imperial interests.
What the missionary in the field did not give, or sell, to the national or local ethnographic collection back home, they donated to their own societys ethnographic collection. Two of the earliest museums in Britain, which were founded independently of any concern for forming stock for use in exhibitions, belonged t the London Missionary Society and the Wesley Missionary Society.
6. Nicola Mapelli, Katherine Aigner and Nadia Fiusello, Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2012.
7. Catalogue, p. 7.
8. Ibid., p .9.
10. Ibid., p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 21.
12. The Vatican Collections The Papacy and Art, p .227
14. Ibid., p. 25. Note the qualification of great which seems to be limited mainly to the religions of Europe and America.
15. Ibid., p. 26.
16. K. Opoku,
Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project,
17. Catalogue, p. 91.
18. Frank Willet, African Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1971, p. 245.
19. Catalogue, pp. 181-187.
20. Ibid., p. 223.
21. Ibid., pp. 257, 262, 282.
22. Ibid, pp. 255, 260, 267, 290.
Maiden Spirit Mask, (Agbogho mmuo), Igbo, Nigeria, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.