Missionary Material Assemblages and the Mission of Museums: The Spirit on Display – Workshop report by Ana Rita Amaral

22 April, 2024

Entry hall facing the library of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome. Photograph by A.R. Amaral

During the last week of February, an international group of researchers gathered at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome for a workshop on the past and present entanglements between Christian evangelisation and the manifold practices associated with making collections and arranging them in museums and exhibitions. The title and call of the workshop offered three conceptual axes for exploring these entanglements.

Firstly, our use of the expression missionary material assemblages was intended to suggest, without elaborating on it, a double questioning of the nature and status of the elements that make up what we usually call ‘museum collections’, as well as the links established between them and the practices of putting them together, assembling them, undertaken by missionaries or in the context of missionary work.

Secondly, taking the cue from the recent changes in the conceptualisation and permanent display of the Vatican’s Missionary-Ethnological Museum, now called the Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi, we wanted to generate a discussion about the mission of museums, how it changes over time, and how those changes impact and are impacted by the ways in which the elements in these assemblages are valued, interpreted, preserved and displayed. Not to mention how different audiences, with different levels of historical and cultural attachment to the histories of Christian evangelisation and its material assemblages, relate to these reconceptualised museum practices and spaces.

Finally, our third set of questions for debate, also inspired by Anima Mundi’s new mission as ‘welcoming the spirit of each culture’,  was about the spirit on display, that is, what does it entail for museums to acknowledge that the assemblages they are supposed to keep, conserve, research, and display, can also be made up of the spiritual?

Interspersed with these questions, the general programme of the workshop included a day and a half of presentations and discussions and a series of excursions and museum visits throughout the week, allowing us to breathe and be inspired by the city of Rome.

Museum of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Mary and Jesus (Picpus) in Rome. Photographs by Wonu Veys (above) and A.R. Amaral (below)

The researchers began arriving in Rome on Monday and Tuesday (26-27 February). Those who had arrived by Tuesday morning had the opportunity to visit the museum of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Mary and Jesus, a Catholic religious congregation of priests and brothers, also known as the Picpus, after the street in Paris where their first house was located. Although small, this interesting museum consists of two rooms: a small entrance hall where two display cases contain a variety of missionary memorabilia associated with the Congregation’s history, and a larger room with items assembled in the context of the Picpusian missionary work in various parts of Oceania and South America, some of which date back to the mid-nineteenth century. We were warmly welcomed to the museum by Luana Tarsi and Father Éric Hernout, the Congregation’s archivist, who told us about the history of the congregation and the museum, as well as their current projects involving partners in different parts of the world where the Picpusians worked and assembled what is now in the museum.

The following day, Wednesday 28 February, was spent entirely at the KNIR, with presentations and discussions.

Maria Bonaria Urban opened the workshop with a presentation on the Sodality of St. Peter Claver at the 1925 Vatican exhibition. Photograph by Deborah Dainese

The first panel began with Maria Bonaria Urban (KNIR, University of Amsterdam), who spoke about the participation of the Sodality of St. Peter Claver in the 1925 Vatican Missionary Exhibition. Based on a close analysis of a set of three elements from the Sodality’s archive – a letter, a photo album and a list of objects – which she sees as ‘missionary devices’ that transmit ‘the tensions between Catholic universalism and ethnic diversity’, Maria raised key questions about how to work with and what we can learn from such sources, their transmediality and their biases. Researchers studying the 1925 Vatican exhibition often struggle with the lack of object lists, but what happens when a researcher has a list but no objects? What are we to make of photographs of staged missionary events designed to tell a triumphant religious narrative that some of the subjects in them seem to defy?

Deborah Dainese (Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia) followed with a presentation on the Congolese artist Mashitolo Mwata Zola (1915-after 1979), who lived and worked in the Kwango-Kwilu region, in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Zola created Christian artworks that were displayed in another Vatican exhibition, which took place 25 years later in 1950. This exhibition was dedicated to Christian art created in the context of the Catholic mission worldwide. Deborah’s research provides valuable insights into the lives of artists and the creation of Christian art forms, which are often overlooked in studies and debates around African art.

The final presentation of the panel was given by Belinda Peters (CERES, Ruhr University Bochum), who provided a comprehensive and comparative overview of missionary collecting and exhibition practices that were carried out by Catholic institutions based in Germany between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Belinda focused on the historical motives, backgrounds, and aims behind such activities, which, though appearing unsystematic and haphazard today, were closely linked to the purposes and development of missionary work.

Amélie Roussillon discussed the transfer of the Utrecht Missionary Society’s collection to the Museum voor Land- en Volkenkunde, in Rotterdam. Photograph by A.R. Amaral

The second panel of the morning shifted the focus to the circulation, display, and new ways of researching items associated with the Christian missionary presence in New Guinea. The session was opened by Amélie Roussillon (Utrecht University, Pressing Matter project), who spoke about the ‘display lives of the Utrecht Missionary Society collections’. Amélie talked about how the assemblages made by the Dutch Protestant missionaries – who worked between the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in what was then Dutch New Guinea – were reframed in different settings, accumulating values and meanings in the process. She identified three modes of display: one related to the presentation of the mission in the museum established by the Society in Utrecht; another connected to missionary exhibitions, such as those organised during the fiftieth and sixtieth celebrations of the Society in 1909 and 1919; and finally, a third related to the international colonial exhibitions, such as Amsterdam 1883 and Paris 1900.

Missionary museums, though seemingly a thing of the past, still exist today, which raises the question, addressed by Paul Voogt (Missiemuseum Steyl), of their ‘contemporary relevance’. Aware of the public debate surrounding colonial collections, the Missiemuseum, founded in Steyl, in 1931 by the Catholic Society of the Divine Word (SVD), is committed to rethinking its mission today by researching the histories of its collections. Paul’s presentation focused on a recent project that aims to study a set of Papuan modelled skulls from the Sepik River, tracing their changing meanings throughout time and space. In addition to museum and archival research, the project will involve dialogue with various stakeholders in Europe and New Guinea.

The third panellist was Alison Kahn (Loughborough University), who closed the session with a presentation on the potential of new technologies such as AI in researching collections, ‘re-establishing connections with places and peoples of origin’, and ultimately supporting processes of return. Drawing on her long experience of studying the former Vatican Ethnological-Missionary Museum, Alison discussed these innovative approaches as applied to the case of the collections from the Sepik River region associated with Father Franz Kirschbaum, also an SVD missionary.

Niklas Wolf opening the third panel in the afternoon with the ‘The museum as shrine? The shrine as museum?’. Photograph by Deborah Dainese

After lunch, the third and final panel of the day consisted of four papers. First, Niklas Wolf (University of Zürich) spoke about his research on ‘Vodun’s Visuals’, focusing on terminology and display, within a series of shrines and museums in Ghana and Germany. Niklas elaborated on the spatial settings, often shrines with rich ‘pictorial programs’ on the walls, where Vodun can live in ‘tangible form’ and ‘where they are treated, fed and interacted with’, practices that approximate such spaces to museums. The latter, in turn, can sometimes accommodate the reinstallation and display of shrines and altars, raising questions about spiritual efficacy, aesthetic contemplation, and the nature of the practices that take place both in shrines and museums.

Still within the framework of West African-European circulations, Marleen de Witte (Utrecht University, Religious Matters project) presented her work on the ‘display lives’ of a particular set of Asante asuman. Questioning their complex trajectory, which had one of its salient moments in their acquisition on the art market by the Afrika Museum, a museum associated with the Catholic Congregation of the Holy Spirit, in the late 1960s, and their subsequent appreciation and display in the museum as art, Marleen wanted to go further and explored other ways of displaying and learning about the spirits and their histories, for example, during festivals in Ghana.

The third presentation was by Ana Rita Amaral (Utrecht University, Pressing Matter project), who focused on three items among the hundreds assembled by the Dutch members of the same Congregation of the Holy Spirit, in late colonial, early independent Angola. This focus allowed her to raise questions about the dynamics of power and resistance in the historical context in which the items circulated, as well as about the significance of missionary collecting practices in a period of increasing tension in the run-up to the liberation wars and independence of Angola. Rita brought up for discussion the links between colonial and missionary legacies and their interplay with Catholicism and heritage in contemporary Angola.

This discussion about the past in the present and about the legacies of Christian missionary activity continued with the final presentation, ‘On Historical Correcting: Prophecy, Catholicism, and Heritage in Today’s Kongo Kingdom’, by Ramon Sarró (Oxford University). Ramon used what he called the ‘epistemology of the shadow’ to discuss what is illuminated and what is shadowed by contemporary state discourses and practices around religion and heritage in Mbanza Kongo, in present-day Angola. Ramon challenged commonly held views of history, which inform debates on restoration and restitution, and highlighted how prophetic pro-Kongo churches engage with the past. Ethnographic attention to these churches offers new insights into how the history of Catholicism is perceived from the perspectives of those who have interacted with – and opposed – missionaries in the past, and who are themselves engaged in their own forms of ‘counter heritage’ practices.

Each panel was followed by smaller discussions, chaired by Birgit Meyer (Utrecht University, Religious Matters & Pressing Matter projects) and Peter Pels (Leiden University, Pressing Matter project), that touched on various issues, such as the role and recognition of individual artists and the involvement of missionaries in art schools and workshops; the potential and limitations of missionary sources; the question of language and the problems of using certain historical terms in the present; the use of new research methods and their implications in terms of reproducing bias, but also with regard to the issue of intellectual property rights, for example, when considering certain indigenous designs.

At the end of the day there was a larger debate, sparked by comments from Fanny Wonu Veys (Curator Oceania, Wereldmuseum) and Erna Lilje (Curator Indigenous Knowledge & Material Culture, Wereldmuseum). Wonu commented on how the presentations showed the multiple flows of people, items, ideas, spirits, across different realms, including temporal, geographical, cultural, institutional, religious or secular. A focus on missionary practices shows how much these movements entail different adaptations and transformations, such as thos of missionaries who had to find inroads into the local cultures in order to connect. Finding the appropriate language to make these connections is a major challenge for both researchers and museums. Erna, in turn, questioned the implications of conceptual, disciplinary and institutional boundaries that lead us to leave aside missionaries’ involvement with natural history. Thus, the economic aspect can be neglected, as well as the networks of hunting and extracting natural resources, which often relied on local expertise. Another implication is to consider the extent to which missions and missionaries operated as colonial infrastructures. Many other questions were raised and ideas exchanged around these missionary assemblages and the multiple entanglements they generate across time and space.

The group in the conservation lab of the Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi, inside the Vatican Museums. Photograph by Birgit Meyer

The following day, Thursday 29 February, was spent entirely at the Vatican Museums, where we had the privilege of being welcomed by some of the staff of the Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi. The morning began with an inspiring session by the museum’s conservation specialists, where we were able to learn about their care of these truly multiform assemblages and their recent collaborative projects, based on the notion that conservation should stem from dialogue and attend to the principles of the originating cultures (their recent book Ethics and Practice of Conservation: Manual for the Conservation of Ethnographic and Multi-Material Assets, which includes sixteen case studies from the collection, is an excellent resource for learning more). We then had a guided tour of the current display, which has undergone a process of renovation over the last decade and is being organised by geographical area. In the afternoon, the participants were free to visit the rest of the Vatican Museums.

Finally, Friday 1 March, the last day of this intense but enriching week in Rome, was spent with a wrap-up discussion in the morning and a guided visit to the recently renamed Museo delle Civiltà, namely to the Oceania section. This large museum, which is divided between two buildings dedicated to the collections of ‘African, American, Asian and Oceanian arts and cultures’ and those of ‘Italian popular arts and traditions’, is also going through a renovation process, which has entailed questioning and researching the histories of the institution and the collections it holds. Part of this reflection can be seen in a new display entitled Museum of Opacities.

Overall, it was a full and enriching week in Rome. The workshop was the result of a collaboration between two research projects, Religious Matters in an Entangled World and the work package ‘Heritage and the Question of Conversion’ of the project Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums, both developed at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht.