The world’s largest missionary congregation in the Catholic Church approached me to solve a burning problem, which ultimately led to addressing a much larger issue: In the course of centuries of missionary activity, the congregation built up one of the world’s largest collections of sacred cultural goods that they exhibited in specially built ethnological museums. Notwithstanding the fact that these museums are now largely closed—some of them are even decaying—the missionary congregation has in recent decades noticeably lost public attention for its humanitarian mission for the poor and marginalized.
I and my team were asked to develop future-oriented concepts for the renovation and redesign of the museums located on all continents of the world.
Guided by the conviction that an ethnographic museum today is not the correct place to appreciate cultural diversity or to criticize it, and making an effort to avoid any vestiges of colonialism, it soon became apparent that the collected cultural assets should be returned to their original place of origin. Only there, in their authentic context, is it possible to cultivate, critically examine, and communicate the cultural assets.
In this context, the question arose whether the solution to the problem of museums could also lead to the solution of the much larger problem of the congregation, the lack of attention for their humanitarian work for the poor and marginalized. When the congregation was founded in 1874, its founder had already made himself a pioneer by publishing a magazine aimed at communicating mission news and encouraging people to support mission activities.
With this in mind, we therefore proposed that the collected cultural objects should be returned to their place of origin in a global restitution process accompanied by internationally renowned artists. The aim should not be to return the cultural assets by the quickest route, but rather to make the public more aware of the significance of the collected cultural assets in a global negotiation process and thereby directing attention to the current agendas of the mission congregation.
The proposal was extremely positively received by many national mission branches. However, due to the Mission’s internal organizational structure, it proved difficult to come to a decision for the project at the global level.