Alongside the work of Michelangelo and Raphael at the Vatican in Rome is a collection of Indigenous Australian artefacts and artworks.
“Few people know that more than half the works in the Vatican Museums are from outside of Europe,” Father Nicola Mapelli told ABC Radio Canberra.
“There are more than 80,000 objects from all over the world.”
Father Mapelli is the director at the Vatican Ethnological Museum and is in Australia this week to launch a book about the Vatican’s Indigenous Australian collection.
In an effort to learn about the origins of the artefacts, Father Mapelli travelled to the Kimberley region and the Tiwi Islands.
“When we went to reconnect with the communities … we asked the people about their ancestors, about the objects and about their meaning,” he said.
“We have a keen interest in Australian and Aboriginal culture.
“The first permanent exhibition of the Vatican Museum has been dedicated to Aboriginal Australia.”
The collection includes some of the earliest preserved Pukumani funeral poles from the Tiwi Islands, artworks from the Kimberley, and gifts given to popes on their travels.
Vatican officials claim the collection is one of the museum’s most visited exhibitions.
“We have more than 6 million visitors [to the Vatican] every year,” Father Mapelli said.
“More than 30,000 people every day are passing in front of these Pukumani poles or the other objects that came from Aboriginal Australia.
“It’s a way to educate people about Aboriginal culture and spirituality and to engage with the spirituality.”
Gifts of exchange
Father Mapelli said the Ethnological Museum had not been an active collector like other museums.
“Many objects came as a gift of exchange in the 1850s from the Benedictine community of New Norcia in Western Australia,” he said.
“A second group of objects came for a great exhibit that was organised in the Vatican in 1925 from the Kimberley region and the Tiwi Islands.”
The museum catalogue, Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection, is being launched in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra.