Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia
On a recent visit to Rome as a member of the Canadian Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museums, I had the opportunity to visit a number of galleries and historic art projects, many of which were completed through the generosity and the work of the patrons and their supporters. This included the Hall of the Liberal Arts, the Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs and the Bramante Courtyard. The artistic and cultural artefacts owned by the Vatican are so numerous that they can only be accommodated in 54 museums, ranging from the Gallery of Maps to the Gregorian Egyptian Museum and the Gallery of Statues.
In light of the Pope’s penitential visit to Canada in the name of reconciliation, the most impactful gallery we visited was the Anima Mundi or Soul of the World Museum. Founded in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, this gallery was initially a Missionary Ethnological Museum housing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. Over time, the collection was streamlined to just over 80,000 works that included prehistoric artefacts, pre-Columbian and Islamic works, and tens of thousands of pieces that were specifically gifted to the various popes by the Indigenous peoples of the world, with a particularly extensive collection of artefacts from Oceania. While the collection is not without its critics, given the history of cultural appropriation that we are revisiting daily, it is clear that the gallery is making every effort to display the works with respect and authenticity.
What was significant to me was the fact that Pope Francis had specifically focused his attention on this gallery, insisting that all the solid walls and barriers be removed, so that the works appear, unhindered, to the viewer. Moreover, he requested that all the works in the collection that couldn’t be displayed be visible to the public in clear cases literally sitting above the exhibition space. For Pope Francis, transparency was the key. Let nothing be hidden.
And the name of the Gallery, Anima Mundi, reminds us that what is displayed here reflects living, vibrant and dynamic cultures. For Francis, the collection reflects the vitality of Indigenous peoples and his own demonstrated engagement with reconciliation writ large. For this Pope, this is no token gesture, but an act of the heart.
This was made especially clear recently when the Pope announced that he was planning to return cultural artefacts to Indigenous peoples. Too often exhibitions, especially focusing on Indigenous works, position those cultures as past or obsolete, a convenient and long-standing colonial construction. Francis’ commitment to dialogue reminds us that the collection of artefacts is not unproblematic, and that the communities involved are vibrant and a part of a living legacy of encounter.
Wilton Littlechild’s gift of a headdress to the Pope during his visit to Canada illustrates this point. Though controversial for some, Littlechild made clear it was both an appropriate and an important gift recognizing the Pope’s sincere commitment to reconciliation. Littlechild, as many know, is a former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the bearer of numerous honours for his work supporting the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As he explained, “For my family, I said to him, ‘I accept your apology. You’ve asked for a pardon. And on behalf of myself, as a former residential school student and my family, we forgive you. And may I give you this gift as a gesture of reconciliation?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So I put it on.”
Receiving an Indigenous name, or indeed a ceremonial headdress, is one of the highest honours one can receive from First Nations communities. It is a gesture decided by the specific community that awards it, and it recognizes an individual’s sincere efforts to champion Indigenous rights and celebrate the living culture of those who present the gift. In this case, the offering recognized the Pope’s sincere gesture of reconciliation, during that long-awaited visit to Canada that so many had been requesting.
This recent announcement further advances the journey of reconciliation, reminding everyone that the Pope is as good as his word.
There can be no doubt that the legacy of colonization has left extraordinary scars, many of these deepened by the breach of trust that has occurred over and again since the arrival of Europeans. The reconciliation process can only succeed through concrete action, and by truthful behaviour, reversing a legacy of suspicion. Let’s continue to walk together in good faith.