In 1925 Pope Pius XI organised a major event: the Vatican Exposition, to make known the cultural, artistic and spiritual traditions of all peoples. The great success of the Exposition, which displayed more than 100,000 objects and works of art from all over the world to more than a million visitors, convinced the Pontiff to transform the temporary event into a permanent exhibition. Thus the Missionary Ethnological Museum was born; it was housed in the Lateran Palace until its transfer, at the beginning of the 1970s, to its current home within the Vatican Museums.
The first director of the Museum was Father Wilhelm Schmidt, the best known Catholic ethnologist of the twentieth century. He led the commission that chose, of the 100,000 works sent for the Exposition, the 40,000 that were to remain as a gift from the peoples of the world to the Pontiffs. This original nucleus was expanded with the addition of various valuable works previously held in the Borgia Museum of Propaganda Fide, evidence of the encounter between the Western world and other cultures from the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards. The Museum held part of the collection of Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804), a keen enthusiast of “exotic curiosities”. These included various pre-Columbian works sent as a gift to Pope Innocent XII in 1692, the date that marks the beginning of the history of the Vatican Ethnological Museum.
Currently over 80,000 objects and works of art are held in the Ethnological Museum. The collection is extremely varied: it ranges from thousands of prehistoric artefacts from all over the world and dating from over two million years ago, to the gifts given to the current Pontiff; from evidence of the great Asian spiritual traditions, to those of the pre-Columbian and Islamic civilisations; from the work of African populations to that of the inhabitants of Oceania and Australia, and the indigenous peoples of America.
Due to the specific nature of the Ethnological collection, constituted of multiple materials, the artefacts are displayed on rotation to facilitate their protection and conservation.