The De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco has a formidable ethnological collection. Especially notable is the justly world famous Jolika collection of New Guinea art and a strong collection of Meso-American murals. Currently, on exhibtion are some fifty items from the Vatican Ethnological Museum (which occupies a separate wing of the Vatican Museum). It is the first large exhibition from the Vatican Museum to travel outside of Europe.
The Vatican collection is large (over 100,000 items) covering Africa (10,000 items), Oceana (some 7,000 items) and America (10,000 items, 3,000 of them pre-Columbian). Its Asian collection includes over 10,000 items, heavy on Japanese and Chinese objects but also including art from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tibet. The Dalai Lama on a visit to Pope Paul VI in 1973 gave the pope a thangka (icons used by Tibetan Buddhists for meditation) which joins 24 other thangkas in the Vatican collection. Few know about this famous Vatican collection and how it differs from other ethnological collections. Most of the art came as gifts from nations and native people to Pope Pius XI for a large 1925 Vatican exhibit. The rulers of Asian countries bequeathed priceless art to the Vatican exhibit. They were not stolen or taken away from their original peoples and then "colonized."
The Vatican ethnological museum showed special sensitivity when John Paul II visited Australia in 1985. A renewed interest arose there in the Vatican Museum's indigenous Australian collection. The museum allowed Prof. Warwick Dix, Director of the Australian Institute of Aborigine Studies, to come and assess the Vatican's Australian collection. He had two main questions: was there any human skeletal material of indigenous Australian origin (none found) or sacred objects of an especially sensitive nature for the Aborigine Australians (none also traceable to any other rightful owner or maker). One delight for me was to learn how much of the Vatican's Australian items originated at New Norcia in Western Australia, a Benedictine monastery I frequently visited when living in Western Australia.
To be sure, some of the items in the Vatican ethnological collection date from an earlier period when such objects of belief were often thought idolatrous. Many such were destroyed by earlier Christian missionaries but a few were sent to the Borgian Museum of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. But the bulk of the collection dates from 1925 (and was added to by a gift in 1934 from the La Farina family of Palermo who had a valuable collection of ceramics, including a precious tile from Teheran from the Palace of the Shah).
Perhaps the best gift I got from attending the exhibition was a careful reading of a superb and truly illuminating English language catalogue of the Vatican Museum's Ethnological Collection, Ethnos (Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2012--$75.00). I had never known that the first curator of the museum which moved in 1926 to the Lateran Palace was the distinguished anthropologist and Divine Word Father, Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt.
Schmidt (and his successors at the ethnological museum which moved into the Vatican Museum space in 1973) all thought that humans were naturally religious. Schmidt, in particular, had a theory of primitive monotheism which contended that the more ancient the group, the closer it was to God's original revelation of a one God. More advanced cultures degenerated, he argued, into polytheism. The Vatican ethnological museum actually financed several ethnographical exhibitions among the Pygmies and some of the peoples of the Philippines. Schmidt's theory of primitive monotheism fed into a deep desire to collect objects from more--so-called--primitive or indigenous cultures.
The objects in the Vatican Ethnological Museum are treated as "cultural ambassadors" to help us understand another people as "other" and not just as exotic curiousities. There is an assiduous effort to avoid colonizing other cultures and an attempt, through these objects of belief, to relate more deeply with the people who made them. As the catalogue states: "the wish to culturally reconnect the objects with the peoples who donated them in the past, ideally closing a circle, means exactly this wish to give voice to every people and culture on earth throgh the wealth of works held in the Ethnological Museum."
While there are some items in the current exhibit (and many more in the Vatican Ethnological Museum) which use traditional cultural symbols to make Christian objects of belief—e.g. crucifixes or Madonnas—most of the museum represents objects of non-Christian belief of indigenous people or the deities of Buddhism, Hinduism and the art of Islam. Some, such as Pukamani funeral piles, originally used in purely Aborigine funeral rites in Australia, are now also adapted to Christian funerals.
As the catalogue for the collection notes, the famous 1925 Vatican exhibition from which the museum originally stems "wanted to present the different cultures and religions where the missionaries worked, not so much to underline the 'pagan' and 'devilish' side of different beliefs but to show instead a real and keen curiosity and interest for different worlds."
I was told by Father Tom Lucas S.J., the director of the Thacher Museum at the University of San Francisco, that now the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is looking for a possible exhibit based on the Vatican Ethnological Museum's treasury of Oriental holdings. I suspect few visitors to the Vatican Museum ever venture beyond its splendid European holdings found in the Sistine Chapel or the great works of Raphael to the other wing which holds the Vatican's treasure trove of ethnological works of art. Those unable to see the Vatican exhibition of "Objects of Belief" at the De Young might profitably try to buy their own copy of the even richer catalogue of the holdings of the Vatican Ethnological Museum. It is worth every penny!
I was also taken, in seeing the exhibit, at a kind of downplaying of "primitive or aboriginal religion" in the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate ("The Decree on Non-Christian religions"). In paragraph 2, it tends (in ways the Vatican Ethnological Museum avoids) to privilege the great world religions in contrast to the more primitive forms. It says: "Religions that are bound up with advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions [ e.g., What is the human? What does death mean? What is the meaning of life? Who is God?) by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language." While over time, most anthropologists have not bought into Wilhelm Schmidt's theory of Ur-Monotheism, the exhibit makes clear that at many levels so-called primitive religious objects can challenge and transfix our imaginations every bit as much as more advanced forms do.