Much ink has been spilled in documenting some of the famous art collections of history, from the royal collections of Charles II of England and Catherine the Great to the collections formed by the Farnese and the Rothschilds. Lesser known are the collections and collecting practices of missionaries, who for centuries collected material, sacred and profane, from Indigenous communities across the globe. Material collected by Christian missionaries can be found in collections at institutions in the United States and abroad, from the American Museum of Natural History to the British Museum to the Musée du Quai Branly to the Vatican.
The thorny ethical issues behind missionary collections, including the question of how to—or how not to—display Indigenous objects, were the topic of a public workshop organized by Beatrice Falcucci (2022 Italian Fellow) and Gloria Bell (2022 Terra Foundation Affiliated Fellow) that took place at AAR on February 1. The workshop, “Re-thinking and Re-positioning Missionary Collections and Museums,” sought to “unpack the colonial legacy of missionary collecting” using an interdisciplinary approach. Participants discussed the fraught history and ongoing challenges of missionary museums and exhibitions, from the 1925 Vatican Missionary Exhibition to the present day. Chaired by Andrew W. Mellon Humanities Professor Marla Stone, the workshop included speakers Sabina Brevaglieri of Humboldt University Berlin and Emanuela Rossi of the Università di Firenze, in addition to Falcucci and Bell.
Rossi took up the example of an Algonquin birchbark canoe that was borrowed by the National Gallery of Canada from the Canadian Canoe Museum and exhibited with works by Canadian painters. In its new context, Rossi pointed out, the canoe transformed. The presence of artifacts in art museums like the National Gallery “not only indigenized a space that previously was not, but [the artifacts] in turn have undergone a process of ‘artification’ by having entered the interior of an art museum: the canoe as a work of art.” She argued that these two concepts, that of indigenization and that of artification, are “two sides of the same coin.” A lively discussion followed in which Stone posed the question of whether any museum could successfully display such objects without falling into the pitfalls that had been expertly described by Rossi and other workshop participants.
The workshop was made possible thanks to the Fellows’ Project Fund, which supports collaborative projects between Fellows. If you are interested in supporting the Fellows’ Project Fund, please contact Elizabeth Harris, Director of Individual Giving, at e.harris [at] aarome.org.