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Aboriginal treasures at the Vatican

11 OCTOBER 2010

Aboriginal artworks sent from Catholic missions in the north and west of Australia will be on display at the Vatican's Ethnological Museum from 15 October, 2010. The opening of the exhibition is timed to coincide with the canonisation of Mary MacKillop.

The Vatican's collection of Aboriginal artworks came for an exhibition organised in 1925, an arresting spectacle of more than 100,000 objects from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. When the exhibition closed 40,000 objects were kept for the Vatican Collection, including 300 from Australia.

The exhibition RITUALS OF LIFE – the Spirituality and Culture of Aboriginal Australians through the Vatican Collection is a partnership with the National Museum of Australia. A team led by the Museum's senior Indigenous Curator Margo Neale has assisted the Vatican Ethnological Museum with research and display.

"The National Museum of Australia has an important role to play in assisting Indigenous communities to reconnect with their cultural legacy through historic collections held overseas; this has been a key element of the Vatican project," said Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Museum of Australia.

"Using the objects to re-connect with Indigenous communities is very important to us. Through the objects we can show the living story of a people: their history, hopes, joys and desires. From the Vatican Museums, we can show the people visiting here from around the world something about the wonderful living culture and spirituality of Indigenous Australia," said Father Nicola Mapelli, Director, Vatican Ethnological Museum.

Most of the Australian collection at the Vatican dates from the 19th century to 1920 and is from communities in the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, Kalumburu in the Northern Kimberley and New Norcia in Western Australia.

"Our research led us to relatives of those who made the items in the Vatican Collection. Some remembered those who made the objects, others identified works as made by their fathers or uncles. All were proud that the works "were with the Pope in Rome, close to the Sistine Chapel," said the National Museum of Australia's senior Indigenous Curator, Margo Neale.

Works include a set of ten pukamani poles and ceremonial body wear, spears, paddles and an extraordinary range of shields. Of particular interest is an exquisite Wandjina song cycle consisting of 13 small paintings on slate believed to refer to the Stations of the Cross and created in the first decades of the 20th century.

RITUALS OF LIFE – the Spirituality and Culture of Aboriginal Australians through the Vatican Collection opens at the Vatican Ethnological Museum, 15 October 2010.

For interviews, images and more information please contact Dennis Grant on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481; or media@nma.gov.au