Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Collecting While Converting: Missionaries and Ethnographics

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Collecting While Converting: Missionaries and Ethnographics

Article excerpt

'Thus saith the Lord: repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.'

Ezekiel 14.6

During the heyday of European empire, nation and Church building, hundreds of thousands of ritual objects from small-scale indigenous societies reached Europe. Here they circulated among gallerists, collectors and artists, through antique shops, flea markets and auctions, and reached various types of museums. They were procured by, among others, colonial administrators, planters, merchants, military personnel and scientists, but also, importantly, Christian missionaries. While there is an abundant literature on shared (between makers and takers) 'colonial', nonEuropean European cultural heritage in general,1 the pivotal role of missionaries in the latter's convoluted trajectories and the interpretations it received has hardly been studied systematically yet. Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, many museums of ethnology and natural history, as well as art dealers and private collectors, have been keen on acquiring ethnographic objects from missionaries. In quite a few cases museum curators provided the latter with wish lists. There have also been numerous donations by missionaries to museums. Later, the same museums often de-accessioned objects again, mostly by exchange with dealers or other museums, or their collections were dispersed when museums shut down.

The sheer size of, for example, the Roman Catholic missionary effort is illustrated by the World Missionary Exhibition in the Vatican Lateran Palace in 1925. The exhibition, which was intended to promote the missionary enterprise, presented tens of thousands of non-western objects from about 200 dioceses (Fig. 1). The people there, one of its catalogues stated, 'live in complete anarchy ... the strongest play their own judge and go unpunished ... [their] character is necessarily a mixture of mischievousness, revengefulness and cruelty'.2 Such negative perceptions of indigenous peoples, including their ritual art, were characteristic of the momentous missionary discourse of that era, and associated with negative aesthetic appreciations of 'superstitious idols'.

Another case in point is the way in which the Verbite Fathers (Societas Verbi Divini) depicted the Papuan peoples of the German colony in Melanesia, Kaiser Wilhlemsland, in their missionary periodical, the Steyler Missionsbote between about 1890 and 1910. They systematically represented them as childish, incapable of rational thought, emotionally impulsive, beastly in appearance, morally perverse, cruel, bloodthirsty and superstitious. The missionaries saw these societies as still fully under the sway of the Devil, the grim, omnipresent enemy they had to fight heroically.3 Such views provided a large part of the backdrop against which more positive appreciations, as studied in this volume, could arise in the Christian West of the period.

A frequent stereotypical perception (often invoked or implicitly presupposed in contexts of repatriation of cultural property), is that missionaries took, forbade and destroyed indigenous objects by coercion and force. In line with the missionary propaganda of the period, missionary work has often been seen as systematically and destructively hacking into local culture and religion. And indeed, as we will see, there have been many cases of missionary iconoclasm which seem to support that perception.

But, as we will argue, there have been many, if not more, cases showing that what really happened at the grassroots was much more complex. In fact, the image emerging from quite a few primary sources regarding missionaries in the field is totally different: sometimes so different that it raises questions as to the reliability of reports on seemingly unequivocal cases of taking or destroying by force. A critical, in-depth evaluation is needed of the precise role collecting and converting missionaries and various other parties played in colonial settings, in particular indigenous parties, and how these practices related to how the objects were seen in Europe. …

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