Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Data Archive

Monica Galassi: Rituals of Life - The spirituality and culture of Aboriginal Australians through the Vatican Museums Collection

Italian version: “Rituals of Life”: la cultura e la spiritualità degli aborigeni australiani attraverso le collezioni Vaticane

Rome is always a surprise. During a hot and sunny day in May, the Vatican Museums strut themself in all their glory. Attempting to avoid the crowd, I go in the Ethnologic section to visit the Aboriginal culture exhibition “Rituals of Life”: The Spirituality and Culture of Aboriginal Australians: the Vatican Museums Collection. The exhibition Rituals of Life was born from the important collaboration between the Vatican Ethnological Museum and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Father Nicola Mapelli (Curator of the ethnological section of the Vatican Museum), Margo Neale (Senior Indigenous Curator and main consultant of the National Museum of Australia) and Katherine Aigner (Assistant Curator), they have all contributed to the outcome of this interesting exposition. 

The exhibition includes a display of over 300 objects that were gifted to the Pope for the 1925 Universal Exhibition from Tiwi Islands, Kalumburu and New Norcia. All the handworks were produced in these areas from the late Eightieth century and the first twenty years of the Twentieth century. The most significant aspect of this exhibition is to try to connect Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality: Rituals of Life is not only an object showcase, but wants to bring them to light, connecting them to their origins. I am struck by the innovative settings of this project, which aim to reconnect the works with the original communities. To this end Father Nicola Mapelli went personally to Australia last year to meet with representatives of the Aboriginal communities who created the objects.

The name Rituals of Life has been chosen to mark the importance and the power of everyday rituals in these Aboriginal communities. Indeed the exhibition follows a particular red line that allows imagining, hearing and participation with these rituals. From propulsors to shields, from jewels to funerary ornaments, we can share the best moments of men, women and children. The exhibition highlights objects that encompass both the practical and the spiritual mix.  Everyday artefacts like the Coolamon: created to carry food and water, but they occasionally become shelter of newborn babies softly fallen asleep. Touching also the part dedicated to the funeral rituals that bring the visitor among these ceremonial objects, admiring spears, pom pom, funeral necklaces and ten incredible Pukumani funerary poles. The captions situate every object in this practical, symbolic and historical position, showing the desire to stop them from existing in an unmoving past. It strikes me also that in this beautiful exhibition, I have the feeling to walk among the objects, but no less than they are moving close to me.

For further information on the “Rituals of Life” exhibition you can visit the Vatican Museum official Web Site or that one of the National Museum of Australia.