The Department for the Ethnological Collections Anima Mundi of the Vatican Museums conserves a diverse collection, from all geographical areas of the world and from all historical periods. It consists of art and cultures of the peoples of Australia and Oceania, the Americas, Africa and Asia, as well as a large collection of prehistoric artefacts. It ranges from Islamic art to pre-Columbian art, from cultural evidence of the Sami of Northern Europe to artefacts sent to Pope Innocent XII in 1691.
The fundamental principle that guides the research activity of the Department on this vast collection is re-connection: the works it contains, numbering over 80,000, were in fact sent as gifts to the Pontiffs throughout the centuries and from all over the world. Since 2009, through archive research and other methods, we endeavoured to identify their communities of origin. Subsequently, field visits were made to understand, by speaking directly with the people, the profound and ultimate meaning of the gift sent by their ancestors to Rome. In this way it is possible to bring the specific and particular perspective of these different peoples within the Vatican Museums: they themselves, in a certain sense, speak of their works to visitors who admire them, and to those who know and study them through publications.
Indeed, the same principle of re-connection guides the writing of the scientific articles and catalogues in the Department, which is also the result of valuable exchanges with scholars, experts in the field and curators of prestigious museums around the world. The catalogues, in particular, are divided into three levels: the first, an overall guide to the collection (already published: Ethnos, 2012); a second level, which presents an introduction to the collections of individual continents (already published: The Americas, 2015; soon to be published: Oceania); and a third and final level, which concerns a detailed examination of a specific collection (already published: Australia, 2017). The other geographical and cultural areas have been in a phase of study, examination and research for some years, with a view to future publications.
Again, by virtue of the same principle, the repatriation of human remains present in the ethnological collections has been developed for several years: an Ecuadorean tsantsa, for example, was repatriated in 2017, after years of fruitful dialogue with the communities of origin. A similar process is being completed for the last human remains present in the Department: three mummies from the Inca era, from Peru.
Last but not least, an expression of this approach is to be recognised in the organisation of exhibitions in the countries of origin of the works, which occurred in 2012 in Cuba, in 2014 in the United Arab Emirates and in 2019 in China, in Beijing: all these were occasions in which the works sent to the Pontiffs were exhibited “at home”.
The Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi is now engaged in the gradual and complete renewal of its permanent exhibition. The works that compose it are carefully selected, among the thousands present in the collection, only after interaction with the communities of origin, so that every decision is taken with respect to their different cultural and spiritual sensibilities.