Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

No one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Met returns stolen Egyptian art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced this week that it will return a fragment of Egyptian sculpture to its homeland. Unlike the bust of Nefertiti or the recently returned frescoes that the Louvre gave up, the Egyptians weren’t calling for its return for months or years. In fact, the Met bought the item from a collector with the specific intent of repatriating it.

The move is being seen as an olive branch offered by the Met’s new director Thomas Campbell, and another victory for Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who’s been getting tough with museums who own stolen Egyptian artifacts.

The artifact is a fragment of a naos, a shrine in the holy of holies of an Egyptian temple. It was dedicated to the 12th dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat I, who ruled from 1991 to 1962 BC, and was taken from a temple at Karnak, shown here.

History and art buffs face huge temptation when they enter an antiquities shop. Beautiful works of art and evocative everyday items from ancient civilizations are available for purchase, but this history and art buff has always resisted temptation. Much of what you see is either fake or stolen (witness the large numbers of Iraqi and Afghani artifacts on sale these past few years) and purchasing them encourages the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological sites by artifact hunters.

Once in Palmyra, Syria, a guy tried to sell me some “Roman” coins made of aluminum! Unfortunately the fakes are not always so easy to detect, as there’s a major worldwide industry making new things look old. Even if they are real artifacts, there’s a good chance they were stolen sometime in the past.

So congratulations to the Met and Dr. Hawass for a job well done. It’s a shame the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is such a mess, but Dr. Hawass is working on fixing that too.

Photo courtesy of mikescrivener from the Gadling Flickr pool. Check out his really cool series from Egypt here.

Own a piece of Paris: Eiffel Tower stairs, other artifacts up for auction

Want to own a piece of Paris? You’ll have a chance when historic pieces of the City of Lights go up for grabs on December 14. At the “Paris Mon Amour” (Paris My Love) sale, 18th century tourists maps, antique street benches, and a public phone box from the 1950’s will be sold at auction along with street lamps from the Champs Elysees and a staircase from the Eiffel Tower.

The 40-step section of stairs from the Paris landmark is is just one piece of the original staircase and is expected to fetch €60,000 to €80,000. The Tower’s steps were removed during a renovation in 1983, cut into 24 parts, and sold to collectors around the world. Since then, they’ve been on the auction block only a few times, most recently in 2007 and 2008. The company that manages the Eiffel Tower oversees each auction and apparently, they don’t want pieces of the Tower changing hands too often.

I couldn’t find much information on how to get in on the auction action. But chances are, if you’ve got the cash to drop on stairs from the Eiffel Tower, you’ve also got connections that can get you in.

The auction is part of the celebration of Paris’ 120-year anniversary, which took place this year. Other events scheduled throughout the year included special fireworks displays and exhibits of photos that chronicled the history of the structure.

It’s Moving Day — er, Month — at the Acropolis

I was irrationally excited for my first and thusfar only visit to the Acropolis eight years ago. A photograhy enthusiast, I was excited to get a great shot. And when I got there and scrambled up the hill to the top, what beautiful vista awaited me? Contrstruction. Yes, scaffolding, workers in yellow hats, orange fences … it was hard to find a nice shot, but I took a few snaps nonethless and vowed to get better ones on my next trip, whenever that may be.

So I can only imagine what kind of mayhem that’s been ensuing at the Acropolis lately — they’re moving, according to this article. Obviously, they’re not moving the actual Acropolis structure, but they’re moving all the artifacts from the museum next door, down the hill to a new museum that’s scheduled to open in 2008. In the meantime, expect cranes and lots of engineers on edge as they pray desparately that they don’t have to make any claims on their $568.6 million insurance policy. The move is expected to last six weeks.

A Canadian in Beijing: Capital Museum A Total Snooze

I suppose if I weren’t so tired today our class trip to the Beijing Central Museum (or, ????????????: Shoudu Bowuguan) would be more interesting to me. As it stands, we’ve been here for two hours and I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve even returned to the bus early (the eventual meeting place) because I couldn’t stand the sterility of the experience any longer. My legs were so tired from the endless walking that I’m even sitting on the ground out here and, as you know, that’s not something I advocate in Beijing!

I’m just not into it. What does this say about me?

I’m actually really interested in history and I find stories of the past fascinating. I love to learn about the places I visit and how they have come to develop into what they are under my feet and before my eyes. Where a place has come from and how it has journeyed and why — I love that stuff. So, why couldn’t I get into this museum, I wonder?

The museum is a beautiful modern building made of glass and marble and full of architectural wonder. It has only been open in this current location since December 19, 2006. It is 60,000 square metres in size, five floors with escalators and elevators between each and it can accommodate up to 2,000 visitors per day. It’s majestic, really, and the photos really don’t do it justice.

It’s gorgeous. Every display is well-placed and “just so.” In fact, I think that’s the problem. I have this overwhelming feeling that this place has been over thought, and now the information being communicated about China’s history also seems over thought, as though a huge committee sat around a giant table both approving and vetoing what I should or should not be told as a visitor. Or perhaps it’s more like what I could or could not be told. I became more and more agitated by the descriptions of history with every room that I eventually just found a bench inside and watched people instead.

But, what do I know? My learning is as limited as the next person’s – it’s through my Canadian cultural lens, education, reading material, etc. – and so I can’t claim to know what “really happened.” Still, I know well enough that the rise of the republic in China was not all glory and accomplishment. There was no mention of what the people went through throughout this transition (i.e. “The Cultural Revolution”) or even what they faced throughout the “Great Leap Forward” campaign just following the end of Feudalism in China. I saw no mention of the destruction of historical artifacts, literature, cultural relics; no mention of deaths by starvation or long-term incarceration; no mention of the dislocation of people and families throughout both movements. At least, no mention that I could see in English.

The signs in English were not as complete as the signs in Chinese, either. I know enough of this language to know that, but my ability to read all of the history-related characters was pretty limited and so I had to rely on these English translations which were, of course, full of written errors. I was really shocked to see such mistakes in such an official building. This is the Capital Museum of Beijing! I’m shocked that these errors made it through and I do hope that correcting these is on the “to do” list before the Olympics. I’m sure they’ll have lots of visitors through this museum at that time who will require the English as much (or more) than I did.

[I wished I had some sort of guide, but the computer kiosks offering more detail were entirely in Chinese and I didn’t learn until later that I could have rented an English headset (like I did at the Summer Palace) to accompany my walk. Oh well, I suppose I was meant to experience it as I was and these are my honest impressions.]

Last night, I went out again with my musician friends and checked out live music at Mao Live House (and played a couple of songs too) and so I really didn’t get much sleep. After awhile, my fatigue and my irritation with these language errors (not to mention what seemed to me to be an incomplete reflection of historical events) combined to make me stop reading these annoying signs altogether. Instead, I wandered slowly and aimlessly, looking at displays and snapping pictures until even this lackadaisical passivity got boring.

What’s more, (if you’ll permit me to complain just once more about this museum!), the displays were hardly interactive at all. There were lots of paintings, wood/clay models to peer at as well as plenty of items behind glass, but there was very little for the museum goer to do besides wander and snap pictures. I’ve perhaps become spoiled by places like The Science Centre in Toronto, but I’d have to say that my one trip to the Beijing Capital Museum is plenty for me. I don’t need to go back.

Time to board the bus that will take me “home” to my quiet dorm room so that I can take a nap.

May as well continue this snooze fest!