Connections/Collections: power objects and institutions in north-east Congo (1800-1960)
The network project CONGOCONNECT studies in an interdisciplinary perspective ethnographic collections from the north-east of the Congo from the Royal Museum for Central Africa. A large part of the RMCA collection was gathered during a scientific expedition led by the military A. Hutereau (1911-13), consisting of approx. 10.000 ethnographic objects, natural history collections, field photographs, films, sound recordings and archives, which remained largely unexplored. The expedition material presents us with rich and unique sources of a region undergoing major changes through an intense history of contacts (pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial), and is explored in conjunction with other collections and archives.
Background history: encounters and confrontations
The north-east of the Congo, bridging Equatorial and Interlacustrine Africa, has been very important in the history of Africa, geographically, culturally as well as politically. In pre-colonial times, the north-east of the Congo basin attracted populations from different origins, who adapted to a multitude of ecological niches, resulting in a wide variety of inter-related socio-political institutions. Since the 1870s, the region came subsequently under the control of slave and ivory traders from Sudan and Zanzibar, and the Belgian colonizers. The high number of exploratory, military and scientific expeditions between 1880 and 1910 reflect diplomatic and economic interests of Western nations (e.g. H.M. Stanley). Belgium, Germany, France and Great Britain started prospecting here in competition for a slice of African land, leading to the military subjugation of the slave traders and the actual colonization. It is in this early colonial setting that the Hutereau expedition took place, competing with two other major expeditions from the American Museum of Natural History (1909-15) and from the Ethnology Museum in Berlin (1907-8). These provide us with a great resource of comparative study material enabling to consider the Hutereau collection in a wider perspective.
The core of our interdisciplinary approach consists in studying, firstly, the history of research and collecting practices in the museum in light of colonial politics and, secondly, the cultural history of north-east Congo in relation to the different contact histories. The dialectic nature of encounters is what binds together these two facets of research. To understand the role of objects in the creation of colonial knowledge enables to assess them critically as sources and make better use of them for the reconstruction of indigenous history. Thirdly, it is taken as a principle that communities from which the heritage derives are to be acknowledged and involved in processes of reconstruction and representation of their own history.