Museum of Chinese Art and Ethnography Xaverian Missionaries - V.le S. Martino, 8 - Parma, Italy 0521-257.337

Mission: a noble missionary museum

The world with no barriers and no borders
P. Emilio Iurman

 

Guido M. Conforti in Cina on the dresine - 1928
Bishop Guido M. Conforti visits China - 1928

The restructuring of the museum provides us with an opportunity to rethink its meaning and history.

The great majority of museums benefit from three types of collections: theft (or whatever one can call it), objects received through armies or violent intervention; gifts of merchants or collectors who travel the world to collect works which adorn residences or art galleries; and legacies from patrons, anthropologists or missionaries whose aim would be cultural.

In the case of bishop Guido M. Conforti, the intention to create a museum had nothing to do with the desire to put the greedy hands on art objects. He had a passion, we must say, not an end to itself, nor fueled by the curiosity of visitors to see exotic objects.

In his view, the objects collected were to tell the thrilling epic of his missionaries in distant and unknown lands, and their commitment to appreciate various cultures.

His greatest contribution was to convince his missionaries of the cultural value of this idea, and its impact on everyone who worked in China. We wonder today on their letters and articles, as well as to the amount of material that they managed to collect in a relatively short time. They have learned the lesson well, and took advantage of every favorable opportunity to think about the museum.

For both Conforti and his missionaries, the museum represented an obligation to approach the cultures with appreciation, and it provided an opportunity for the people of Italy, and Parma, to show equal interest for distant and unknown lands. And this idea is well describe in the pages of the first magazine of the Xaverian congregation, “Faith and civilization,” which was a visual terminal of a stream of knowledge that came from the East.

A museum was, then, a place of cultural exchange, albeit with a less clear awareness as what we have today. I would add, given the quality of the collections, we are in the presence of a museum that challenges an old prejudice: a missionary museum must be by definition a collection of exoticism and folklore. Not in this case, not in this museum, not in the mind of Conforti. This is a noble museum, without an inferiority complex because it has sprung from a “missionary” effort.

 

First issue of Fede e Civiltà (Faith and Civilization, December 1903)
First issue of "Fede e Civiltà"
(Faith and Civilization, December 1903)

Museum of a missionary institute

We must add another component to the testimonies of different cultures and, inevitably, a kaleidoscope of multicolored and varied realities of the museum.

Although conceived from a single intuition, the museum has found its birth, accompaniment, and growth in the whole organization, namely the Xaverian institute.

A missionary institute comes from Christ’s mandate: “Go into all the world ... proclaim the Gospel to all.” The first and natural primal religious appearance, however, merges and branches into the human and cultural commitment with ease. Thus, universality and global awareness are the DNA of a missionary institute .

Conforti expressed it, then, with a very simple yet dated slogan: "Make of the world a single family." The world with no barriers and no borders.

And so, the museum is both a showcase of the genius of the people whose items appear on display, and it is also the result of the genius of the Xaverians who believed in the value of cultural promotion. This utopia, we might call it, that the Xaverians promoted also with the foundation of a movement engaged in Italian schools and its magazine CEM (Centre for Mission Education), which later became the Education Center for Mondiality.

The history of the Xaverian family and the history of the museum are intertwined, and nurture each other, in order to hold both the commitment to religious education as well as to highlight elegantly the cultural artifacts of peoples.

You might appreciate this 5-minute video on the founding of a Missionary institute and of the Museum, which for Bishop Conforti felt like a “Daring Project” (click for Italian video).