Australian collection in the Vatican Museums

Origins of the Australian collection in the Vatican Museums

Vatican collection locations
Collection items come from Tiwi Islands, Kalumburu and New Norcia

The main source of Australian collection items in the Vatican Museums are from the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, Kalumburu in the north east Kimberley and around New Norcia near Perth. Objects include some of the earliest preserved Pukumani funeral poles from the Tiwi Islands, unique artworks from the Kimberley region, as well as rare pieces from other areas. Gifts given to the popes on their travels are also in the collection.

The Vatican Ethnological Museum, called Anima Mundi– Peoples, art and cultures, has never been an active collector like other museums, instead the objects in the collection mainly originated from two specific times: the founding of the Benedictine monastic town of New Norcia in Western Australia in 1847 and the great Exhibition in the Vatican in 1925.

Historical context in 19th century Western Australia

The mid to late 1800s and early 1900s was a time of enormous change and upheaval for Aboriginal people in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. They suffered from the aggressive impacts of colonisation, pastoral land grabs, a rush for gold and the creation of pearling fleets. Vast tracts of land were being taken up by new settlers to farm sheep and cattle, pushing Aboriginal people further into isolated pockets of refuge. Changes to the traditional Indigenous homelands were rapid.

In the context of these early years of violent frontier conflict and upheaval, Yued people in the south west and Gwini and Kulari peoples in the east Kimberley displayed agency by choosing to engage – or not – with religious missions that offered refuge, and left objects with them as gifts of exchange.

Later, some objects were made for the 1925 Exhibition by community artists. They represent resilience, survival and creative vitality from a time of first contact and exchange. Early objects from the Kimberley region include a painting cycle on 13 slates linked to the Wanjina story, made by Kalumburu artist Paul Miuron around 1917.

The great exhibition of 1925

The great exhibition of 1925

In 1925 Pope Pius the XI held an exhibition of world cultures at the Vatican Museum. He asked missionaries around the world to ask the people to send objects to educate the European audience about their spiritual, cultural and daily life. This was between the two world wars, in a period when extremism was on the rise, and was an attempt to educate the Europeans about other cultures outside Europe.

The historical circumstances under which the collection was commissioned, its intersection with the mission story and Rome from nineteenth century and since, is of great interest and is little known. Being amongst some of the earliest known documentations of Australian Indigenous cultures, with an emphasis on the cultural and spiritual life, it is an important and unique historical collection of inter-cultural engagement and dialogue. The importance and unique aspects of these Indigenous cultural treasures is enhanced by the bigger story of how it got to Rome and how it is being reconnected with communities at a pivotal time in our history.

'We would love more of your people to come and learn about my culture'

Pedro Wonaeamirri, clan leader and artist, Tiwi Islands 2010

Examples of gifts to the popes

Paul VI was the first Pope to visit Australia in 1970, and to meet Indigenous Australians in their country and acknowledged their important and unique culture. On that occasion he received a painted Wanjina on bark.

Community engagement process

In 1986 Professor Warwick Dix, Director of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS), went to the Museum to study and assess the Australian collection. He had two main questions:

  • Were there any human skeletal remains of Indigenous Australian origin?
  • Were there any sacred artefacts of a sensitive nature in the Vatican’s collection?

In his final report Dix stated definitively that ‘there is no human skeletal material of Australian Aboriginal origin in the collection’. He concluded by stating that ‘there are no other items in the collection that are likely to cause genuine contention on the grounds of restriction from view’.

The presence of human remains and sacred objects in museums is a matter of great sensitivity for Indigenous Australians. The Museum’s willingness to cooperate in addressing the issue is indicative of their general approach to Indigenous cultural concerns.

Reconnecting the objects with community

The responsibility to culturally reconnect relevant contemporary Indigenous communities to their material heritage held in the museum was realised through community visits and collaborations from 2010 to 2015 and is ongoing. The Museums Director, Father Nicola Mapelli, also visited on some study tours, which was greatly appreciated by the people who met him. It is necessary to go back to learn the context of the cultures where the objects came from and connect with the people who made them.

Objects can link broader cultural activities with people and country. Connecting objects to their larger cultural roots and contemporary meanings offers greater insights for better understanding.

But objects only represent the people, it is always better to visit the living culture if you can – this is the same for all cultures in the world.

During the process of community visits and consultations, images of the objects brought old and young people together, instigating inter-generational dialogue about the past. The Museum became an active partner in valuing cultural continuity, preserving cultural heritage and promoting it for the future.

Aloisius Puantulura
Aloisius Puantulura with ceremonial cockatoo feathers, Tiwi Islands, NT 1988

Visiting Bathurst Island, we were shown around the local museum – created by the people of Bathurst Island and Sister Anne Gardiner – by Natalie, the daughter of Aloisius Puantulura. Aloisius is seen with ceremonial cockatoo feathers in his hair and a young relative in the background. This photo, taken by Heide Smith in 1988, was completely orchestrated by Aloisius, who asked to be photographed at this particular place, seated, with the next generation behind him. Through connecting the objects and visiting the community, we learnt more about the people and the beauty of their culture.

'It’s not just about the objects, it’s about the living people in their environment, the living culture'

Father Mapelli, Anima Mundi – Peoples, art and cultures Vatican Museums

Father Mapelli sees the showcasing of the collection as not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility to reconnect relevant contemporary Indigenous communities to their cultural heritage. He is as committed to creating a greater understanding of Australia’s cultural heritage to the world as he is for other ethnographic collections in his care from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. He wants to reconnect them with their contemporary communities as well as profile these non-western world cultures internationally - bring them back to life and into view through the context of contemporary communities.

Permanent exhibition in the Vatican Museums

From the ancient Etruscans and Romans, to the Renaissance masters of Michelangelo and Raphael, the Vatican Museums represent a celebration of humanity through art, appreciating and conserving culture for the people.

Anima Mundi is the section of the Vatican Museums dedicated to cultures outside Europe and had been closed, on and off, for 40 years. The challenge in re-opening it was to position the Indigenous Australian voice and culture on par with the great Italian Renaissance masters of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, whose artworks are admired by over six million or so tourists each year.

In 2009, initial contact was made between the National Museum of Australia and the Ethnological Museum of the Vatican, resulting in an exhibition titled Rituals of Life. The Spirituality and Culture of Aboriginal Australians through the Vatican Museums Collection. The two institutions worked together to set up the exhibition.

"Indigenous Australians who travelled to Rome said how proud they were to see their culture displayed inside the Vatican, living side by side in the heart and soul of Christianity. It demonstrated recognition of Aboriginal spiritual traditions, which are still alive today."

Bundjalung man, Graeme Mundine 2010.

An evening concert marked the opening of the exhibition with Indigenous dancers, and a performance by William Barton on the didgeridoo.

Indigenous dancers at opening of exhibition
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers at the inauguration of the Rituals of Life exhibitions in the Vatican Museums, 15 October 2010​

Indigenous peoples and the repatriation of objects in museums

When we visited the Tiwi Islands we met with Deacon Theodore Tipiloura on Melville Island and spoke about the Pukumani poles in the collection. After identifying the family designs painted on the poles, saying who the original makers were and explaining their significance, he looked at us and asked us if we would like new poles made for the museum. It was the continuation of cultural production that was more important.

Tiwi Elder Pedro Wonaeamirri said the poles displayed in the museum are now ‘cultural ambassadors’ educating people from around the world about Tiwi culture.

The Museum promotes community reconnection and developed a methodology of engagement through the process of creating an exhibition, a catalogue and an Indigenous Art Market where the artists can sell their works at the launch of a catalogue in Canberra.

Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection catalogue

Australia: The Vatican Museum’s Indigenous Collection
Australia: The Vatican Museum’s Indigenous Collection

Inspired by community, the Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection catalogue is a celebration of people, knowledge, culture, nature and stories. It is a continuation of a collaboration begun in 2009 to reconnect the material culture held at the Vatican with the relevant source communities who remain the cultural custodians today.

Meetings with the communities at New Norcia, Kalumburu and the Tiwi Islands directed a starting point for a narrative for the catalogue. In response to the questions and conversations we had on the community visits, we posed themes for the essays in the catalogue around what was important for the people: preservation of heritage, educating others, and the importance of land, Law and culture, through Indigenous world views.

The objects in the collection in the Vatican Museums opened a doorway to explore different aspects of Australian material and intangible culture, which are intrinsically linked. Written by 19 Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors, both academics and grassroots advocates, the essays in this catalogue span history, archaeology, art, law, cultural heritage and biocultural rights and diversity. We asked for statements from traditional owners or custodians about culture and spirituality, or contemporary issues facing them today.

The process has empowered communities to hold onto their cultural history and their own collective identity. The Museum became an active partner in valuing and preserving the cultural heritage and promoting it for the future. The catalogue and exhibitions are examples of positive action which encourages cultural resilience – an important aspect for maintaining safe and healthy people and country.

The catalogue is the product of a rich cultural exchange between Australia and the Vatican and now has the opportunity to educate the wider Australian community to be proud of our Indigenous cultural heritage.

Order the paperback Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection.

Last reviewed: 5 Dec 2017