Vatican owes Africa the truth: Could the Catholic Church's Ethnology Museum be holding artefacts with doubtful histories?Kwame Opoku
Churches supported the establishment of colonial regimes, especially through the destruction of societal, cultural and religious systems in Africa. Until today racist and ignorant assumptions about African cultures inform the justification of keeping artefacts that missionaries looted from Africa to create collections and museums in Europe.
“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
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, 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 as “iconoclastic 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.” 
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: de-africanize Africans and make them amenable to European domination.
Ajibade, Omon and Oloidi have written that “[t]he 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 feitiço) for burning. It is stated in the foreword to a catalogue of the 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.
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. 
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 follow 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.
I found certain statements in the foreword, presentation and preface remarkable. We read in the foreword 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.” 
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”. 
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 always having been 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 Beti’s ‘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, that is, subjugation and domination by force of arms of African societies. The repetition of the Catholic Church’s 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 Church’s 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, 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 world’s 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”. 
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 10 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.” 
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 notorious ‘Declaration 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 relating 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. Penkowski’s 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 a 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 objects of worship.” 
On turning to the chapter ‘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.  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.  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 museum’s 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 Vatican’s 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. All 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 were 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.http://www.pambazuka.net/en/category/features/94050