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Abstract and Figures

By examining one 'ethnographic' object kept at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, this article discusses three consecutive demands for restitution of eo.0.0.7943, in 1878, in the 1960s-1970s, and in 2016. Neither informal nor official demands resulted in the actual return of the object to Congo. Instead, it featured in major exhibitions in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States. While the Tervuren museum 'donated' other objects to local Congolese museums in the 1970s and 1980s, Congolese voices by now seem powerless, and debate is almost inexistent in Belgium. So what can museums and communities do? I argue that both provenance research and local expertise can provide rich and useful contemporary insights on objects and people, as well as on acquisition and exhibition history. Such objects and insights may be integrated in exhibitions Europe and Africa, with all its uplifting and darker consequences. What is more valuable: owning an object or the encounter.
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bmgn - Low Countries Historical Review | Volume 133-2 (2018) | pp. 79-90
Published by Royal Netherlands Historical Society | knhg
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
doi: 10.18352/bmgn-lchr.10553 | | e-issn 2211-2898 | print issn 0165-0505
maarten couttenier
By examining one ‘ethnographic’ object kept at the Royal Museum for Central
Africa, this article discusses three consecutive demands for restitution of
eo.0.0.7943, in 1878, in the 1960s-1970s, and in 2016. Neither informal nor official
demands resulted in the actual return of the object to Congo. Instead, it featured
in major exhibitions in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States. While
the Tervuren museum ‘donated’ other objects to local Congolese museums in the
1970s and 1980s, Congolese voices by now seem powerless, and debate is almost
inexistent in Belgium. So what can museums and communities do? I argue that both
provenance research and local expertise can provide rich and useful contemporary
insights on objects and people, as well as on acquisition and exhibition history.
Such objects and insights may be integrated in exhibitions Europe and Africa, with
all its uplifting and darker consequences. What is more valuable: owning an object
or the encounter?
Door te kijken naar één ‘etnografisch’ object, bewaard in het Koninklijk Museum
voor Midden-Afrika, bespreekt dit artikel drie opeenvolgende vragen naar
restitutie van eo.0.0.7943, in 1878, de jaren 1960-1970 en in 2016. Informele, noch
officiële vragen hebben echter geresulteerd in de terugkeer van het object naar
Congo. Het werd daarentegen wel getoond op grote tentoonstellingen in België,
Nederland en de Verenigde Staten. Het museum in Tervuren ‘schonk’ wel degelijk
andere objecten aan lokale Congolese musea in de jaren 1970 en 1980, maar
vandaag lijken Congolese stemmen machteloos en het debat is bijna onbestaande
in België. Dus wat kunnen museums en gemeenschappen doen? Mijn inziens
kunnen oorsprongsonderzoek en lokale expertise rijke en bruikbare hedendaagse
inzichten opleveren over objecten en mensen, en de geschiedenis van verzamelen
en tentoonstellen. Objecten en inzichten die kunnen worden geïntegreerd in
tentoonstellingen in Europa en Afrika met al zijn verheffende en meer duistere
gevolgen. Wat is waardevoller: een object bezitten of de ontmoeting?
Figures 1 and 2: Baku Kapita Alphonse and Madelaine Tsimba Pham-
bu in Boma, photographs by the author, 2016.
During a too short visit to Boma (drcongo) in 2016, I discussed the
establishment of colonial rule in the region with local chiefs and experts in the
context of a research project at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (rmca).
Much information was exchanged on the nine kings of Boma and the arrival
of European colonisers in the 1870s and 1880s.1 However, presenting a picture
of a statue ‘collected’ by the Belgian trader Alexandre Delcommune in 1878
and now kept at the rmca inspired an emotional discussion that soon turned
to the restitution of colonial collections. According to Chief Baku Kapita
Alphonse (Figure 1), the powers of the kitumba (statue) could be revived after
restitution, and the object could thus be reused. He explained that the statue
can talk, although only inaugurated chiefs are able to communicate with the
kitumba. They feed it kola nuts every morning and evening. In addition to
human traits, greater powers are attributed to the kitumba: it offers protection
from bullets during warfare, for example, and has powers to turn a murderer
deaf, as Chief Madelaine Tsimba Phambu explained (Figure 2). Even within
Boma, however, the presence of different agendas inevitably complicates
matters. Near the former residence of the Governor General of the Congo Free
State (cfs) and impressive baobab trees, other individuals who viewed the
photograph stated that they also could use the object depicted. While plans
exist to install a local museum in the former cfs headquarters, funding is
lacking for the renovations needed in this historic building. Moreover, other
Congolese museums in the making might offer additional competition. In
Kinshasa a new national museum has been constructed with support from
the Korean Agency of International Cooperation to replace the current one on
Mont Ngaliema, which stores thousands of objects in unfavourable conditions
and has limited exhibition space.
Based on the object in the rmca collection examined here, this article
discusses local expertise and current restitution demands and deals with
complex issues concerning ‘acquisitions’ by violence and the establishment
of colonial rule. The ‘historicization of the collections’ also concerns the
exhibition history of eo.0.0.7943 eventually included in the ‘ethnographic’
collection in Tervuren.2 Finally, the text will show that the aforementioned
‘informal’ demands for restitution in 2016, in fact repeated earlier demands in
the 1870s, made shortly after the ‘acquisition’ and again in the 1960s and 1970s
by Mobutu Sese Seko in the context of his recours à l’authenticité [recourse to
authenticity]. Despite the lack of debate on restitution in Belgium today, local
demands have been made and continue. Although the three demands figured
1 I wish to thank Chief Baku Kapita Alphonse,
Clément-Valère Tsasa Bula, Chief Madelaine
Tsimba Phambu, Robert Leblanc, Sébastien
Matingu Lufwa and Fils Tabale Bundu for showing
me around in Boma and sharing their knowledge
with me.
2 B. Wastiau, ‘The Legacy of Collecting: Colonial
Collecting in the Belgian Congo and the Duty
of Unveiling Provenance,’ in: P. Hamilton, J. B.
Gardner (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public
History (Oxford 2017) 473.
Figure 3: eo.0.0.7943, collection rmca Tervuren;
photo Plusj, rmca Tervuren ©.
in different colonial and postcolonial settings, came from different actors (the
original owner, his descendants, and the president of Zaire) and served specific
purposes, all three have little or no power to reach the Tervuren museum, due
to complex practical and political circumstances. We will return to this later.
Despite the limitations, I am convinced that collaboration may be
conducive – within all its limits – to encounters in and outside the museum
as a ‘contact zone’; spaces that need to be humanized ‘by giving it stories and
faces,’ as Philipp Schorch has suggested.3 After all, as Nicolas Thomas recently
noted, dialogue and ‘a new traffic in information and images’ have already led
to a positive ‘sea change’ of ‘fundamental importance.4 Proactive museums
can ‘engage’ with local communities, following a ‘real shift in logic,’ as worded
by Bryony Onciul, resulting in both coproduction and ‘good work,’ as well
as strive and struggle, which, in the end, is also a form of dialogue awaiting
Since the rmca closed for renovation in 2013, eo.0.0.7943 has been
placed in storage, pending the first temporary exhibition after the reopening
in December 2018. In the meantime, researchers may consult The Museum
System for data on this fétiche: weight, dimensions and materials. Information
on the collection process, however, is minimal and confusing: Alexandre
Delcommune is named as ‘field collector’ in Tshikuku before the end of 1878,
but the object is also labelled as a 1912 ‘gift’ from the Royal Museums of Art
and History (rmah). Removed from its original context, the statue remains
silent and offers no further explanation. Its isolation seems to be symbolised
by the neutral background of its ‘official’ coloured picture, which is the
depiction I presented in Boma in 2016 (Figure 3). While some stated that the
history of the nkondi was unknown since its arrival in Belgium – assuming
that it had a more quiet life ‘between depot and showcases’ of the rmca – the
frequently overlooked memoirs of Delcommune (published posthumously
in 1922) provide more information on the ‘curious adventure’ of this object.6
Provenance research and analysis of the remarkable Vingt années de vie africaine
make clear that the term ‘field collector’ is inappropriate. First, it negates
any African agency. Second, the object was not simply ‘collected’ in the ‘field
but was acquired as a result of violent conflicts in and around Boma and the
establishment of colonialism.
3 J. Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the
Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge 1997) 192.
P. Schorch, ‘Humanizing Contact Zones,’ in: O.
Guntarik (ed.), Narratives of Community. Museums
and Ethnicity (Edinburgh 2010) 263. M. Couttenier,
‘The Museum as Rift Zone. The Construc tion and
Representation of ‘East’ and ‘Central’ Africa in the
(Belgian) Congo Museum and the Royal Museum
for Central Africa,’ History in Africa, forthcoming.
4 N. Thomas, The Return of Curiosity: What
Museums Are Good for in the 21st Century (London
2016) 33.
5 B. Onciul, ‘Introduction,’ in: B. Onciul, M. L.
Stefano, S. Hawke (eds.), Engaging Heritage –
Engaging Communities (Woodbridge 2017) 1.
6 N. J. Snoep, ‘Les Minkisi du Congo et la drôle
d’aventure du nkondi “Delcommune,”’ in: Recettes
des dieux Esthétique du fétiche (Paris 2009) 44-45.
Alexandre Delcommune arrived in Boma in 1875 and headed the local
Daumas-Béraud et Cie factory. Trading rubber and ivory entailed establishing
stable contacts with local authorities but also resulted in conflict. In the 1870s
Portuguese warships suppressed local resistance by burning villages and firing
shells. When a local chief gave orders to burn three unexploded projectiles,
seen as ‘fetishes of the white people,’ hundreds were injured or killed.7 A
more personal conflict with the mambouc Jouca-Pava resulted in the death
of a ‘healer’ [guerisseur] and the destruction of his ‘war fetish,’ both shot by
Delcommune. Eventually, after the military surrender, Delcommune married
Jouca-Pava’s eleven or twelve year-old daughter.
Yet another clash, this time with the nine chiefs in Boma, resulted in
the ‘acquisition’ of eo.0.0.7943. According to Delcommune, the conflict was
caused by the 1878 drought that caused trade to decline and thus income
for local traders to diminish. When the nine Boma chiefs increased taxes on
trading routes to offset their losses, they were regarded as ‘intolerable’ and
as trying even ‘the calmest man’s patience,’ Delcommune explained.8 The
Boma kings disagreed and stated: ‘[I]f the whites were not satisfied, all they
had to do, was to return to the place from where they came.9 The statement
was seen as a ‘declaration of war,’ and plans soon followed ‘to teach the nine
potentates an exemplary lesson.’10 The attack was launched late 1878 around
the time that the Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo was created (cehc, 25
November 1878). Whether unintentionally or deliberately, Delcommune
does not indicate the exact date, stating merely that shortly after three in
the morning Ne Oro, Ne Kalado and Ne Kuko were attacked by Angelino
da Motta Veiga, Otto Lindner and Delcommune, respectively. The latter
was supported by 24 Kroumans or local slaves acquired from local chiefs and
working for Europeans as mercenaries.11 The next day five other Boma chiefs
were attacked: Ne Tshanda, Ne Duculla, Kamaloanga, Ne Lutila and Ne Kuka.
Only the village of Ne Chuva was spared, when the conquered chiefs asked
for a cease fire. Ne Chuva (Portuguese for rain) received this name because he
could bring rain, even in the dry season, thanks to a special umbidika statue.12
The sudden, organized attack with armed mercenaries, a system that later on
was also used by the Congo Free State and the Force Publique, may indicate to an
early collaboration between Delcommune and the cehc, an organisation that
in theory was not allowed to take political actions. Henry M. Stanley, however,
7 A. Delcommune, Vingt années de vie africaine.
Récits de voyages, d’aventures et d’exploration au
Congo belge, 1874-1893 (Brussels 1922) 41.
8 Op. cit., 50.
9 Op. cit., 93.
10 Op. cit.
11 Allegedly, Delcommune ignored why they were
called Kroumans, but in fact Europeans used the
term to suggest that these were free men from
Kru coast in Liberia. Op. cit., 94. H. Vanhee and J.
Vos, ‘Kongo in the Age of Empire,’ in: S. Cooksey,
R. Poynor and H. Vanhee (eds.), Kongo across the
Waters (Gainsville 2013) 82.
12 F. Bontinck, ‘Boma sous les Tshinus,’ Zaïre-Afrique
135 (1979) 308.
later on admitted that ‘the so-called Geographical and Commercial societies
were not intended solely to advance geographical knowledge, but also to
further the political interests of their Governments.’13
On the first day of the attack, Delcommune quickly reached Kikuku,
east of Boma. The original village has now disappeared and was moved
uphill, due to the 1958 construction of the Bralima brewery, which continues
to produce Primus and Turbo King. The ‘heavy [nourrie, literally ‘well fed’]
fusillade’ in the middle of night must have come as a complete surprise to
the residents and lasted only 15 minutes. Delcommune’s troops, armed with
Schneiders and Winchesters, easily overpowered local soldiers. Moreover,
Delcommune had ordered his men to set fire to the first houses they reached.
In his memoirs, he explained that the fire had to ‘illuminate the scene and
instil fear among those under siege.’ As a result, ‘the natives fled everywhere,
while a radiant sun lighted the rather sinister scene.’14 Kikuku residents
undoubtedly awoke in panic and hastily fled, taking whatever they could with
them. With Delcommune’s men at their heels, however, they were forced to
leave things behind: ‘[...] my men found a big war fetish, probably taken with
them during the first assault, but then undoubtedly tossed in the bush by its
porters, when we were close on their heels. This fetish was one of the most
reputed idols of the whole region.’15 Delcommune already knew the statue
and had even used the ‘God’ before to locate six men accused of theft. A nail
was driven into the statue, and the mananga declared that all accomplices
would die. Two days later, the thieves were apprehended. Renting the object
was expensive, however, and required gifts of liquor to quench the ‘idol’s’
thirst. Once the Kroumans had transported the statue to his trading post,
the power object could be used free of charge. Delcommune also attributed
(super)human qualities to the object and regarded it as a ‘hostage,’ even ‘more
important than a human hostage,’ ‘detained’ in a metal warehouse. The ‘war
fetish’ was also used to guard his shops, which could now be left open, even at
Remarkably and important in this context, collecting was immediately
followed by restitution demands in 1878. After the conflict, a ‘palaver’ was
organized in Boma-Sundi. ‘Boma kings accepted all the whites demanded’:
taxes were increased only slightly, but fines for breaking the new mukanda
were doubled.17 Suddenly, unannounced, Ne Kuko demanded the return of
his statue. Delcommune refused, arguing that the object belonged to him as
‘booty.’ He agreed to discuss a ransom [rachat] at a more appropriate time. Ne
Kuko reacted furiously, and Delcommune subsequently invited him ‘to come and
get it,’ simultaneously advising him not to ‘tempt the adventure.’ The dispute
13 H. M. Stanley, The Congo and the Founding of
Its Free State: A Story of Work and Explorations
(London 1885) I, 56.
14 Delcommune, Vingt années, 96.
15 Op. cit.
16 Op. cit., 98, 100.
17 Op. cit., 101.
Figure 4: Robert Leblanc leads the way to the former ‘chalet’ of the
Governor General, strategically situated on a hilltop overlooking Boma.
Former sites of local power, marked by baobab trees, reflect traces of
usurpation by colonial rule.
instigated conflict in local politics, as Ne Kuko accused Jouca-Pava (now the
father-in-law of Delcommune) of obstructing restitution of the statue during the
peace negotiations, despite the ‘large ransom’ [riche rançon] offered. The conflict
ended in a second attack on Ne Kuko’s village, this time by Jouca-Pava. The
latter burned the personal residence of Ne Kuko, who had to pay a considerable
‘war tribute.’ According to Delcommune, the war broke the prestige of Boma
aristocracy and affirmed the authority of the Europeans.18 After a short stay
in Belgium, Delcommune soon returned to Boma, now officially serving the
Association Internationale du Congo (aic), as the cehc was called after November
1879, and tried to arrange the official submission of all nine Boma kings, who,
unable to write, signed treaties with an x.19 After the Berlin Conference, Boma
became the cfs capital and home of the Governor General (Figure 4).
When Delcommune returned to Belgium in 1883, he brought with
him not only the child he had with Jouca-Pava’s daughter but also the statue
of Ne Kuko, which he donated to the aic. The object was initially exhibited in
the Royal Museum of Weaponry, Antiquities and Ethnology at the Halle Gate
in Brussels and in 1885 was transferred temporarily to Antwerp, to appear in
the Congo exhibition of the World’s Fair and thus in colonial propaganda. In
a replica of the sanatorium in Boma, created in 1884 by doctor Jean-Baptiste
Allart, Ne Kuko’s ‘fetish’ deeply impressed visitors. According to one, the statue
was easily recognisable by ‘a deep scar on his forehead, caused by the natives
rubbing fingers there, always in the same place.’20 After the Expo, Ne Kuko’s
statue returned to the Halle Gate but due to lack of space was moved (together
with other African objects in the Janssen collection) to the Royal Museums of
Decorative and Industrial Arts (now the rmah). Because exhibition rooms were
also unavailable in the Cinquantenaire, and a new museum building was to be
opened in Tervuren in 1910, chief curator Eugène Van Overloop was convinced
that transfer would be an ‘intelligent and patriotic work.21 When former
Governor General Camille Janssen discovered that ‘his’ objects were relocated,
however, he reclaimed his collection. While some suggested to return to
Janssen his ‘dirty Congolese things’ and to send the rest (including Ne Kuko’s
power object) to Tervuren,22 all African objects were moved to the Museum
of the Belgian Congo in the end. Due to a mix-up with the larger Janssen
collection, Ne Kuko’s statue was exhibited with a label incorrectly mentioning
Janssen as the donor. Delcommune met again with Ne Kuko’s statue in
Tervuren and noted the error: ‘Evidently, this honourable Governor is not there
for no reason and it is fairly logic that they have attributed this donation to
him, but the donor name is none the less inexact.’23
18 Op. cit., 101-104.
19 Op. cit., 166-167. Bontinck, ‘Boma,’ 313-314.
20 A. Geelhand, ‘Le Congo à l’Exposition d’Anvers,’
Bulletin de la Société Royale de Géographie d’Anvers
11 (1885) 400.
21 rmah archive, 10.458, Van Overloop to the
Minister, 4 May 1909.
22 rmah archive, 10.458, Ministry of Sciences and
Arts to Van Overloop, 20 January 1910.
23 Delcommune, Vingt années, 104.
The classification of the rmah ‘gift’ as number 7943 in the
ethnographic collection, was not the end of its voyage as the object later
featured at temporary exhibitions in Oslo (1956) and Rome (1959). Only two
weeks after Congolese independence, the object appeared in ‘Vorm en Kleur’
at the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo. Later on, the object was selected,
together with 199 others for the exhibition ‘Art of the Congo’ in Minneapolis,
Baltimore, New York, Dallas, Milwaukee and Montreal (1967-1969). This
travelling exposition inspired the second demand for restitution, this time by
Mobutu who used the museum catalogues to question the legitimacy of the
same museums. During his famous speech at the un in New York in 1973, the
president questioned the systematic pillage of Zaire and demanded the return
of the 200 objects as part of his recours à l’authenticité. Obviously, the voice
of Mobutu in New York sounded louder than the one of Ne Kuko in Boma-
Sundi, but even the demands of the president of a postcolonial nation would
remain rather powerless as will become clear.
Eventually, rmca Director Lucien Cahen composed a list of objects to
be ‘donated’ to Congo. He took care to avoid the term ‘restitution,’ because
it linked Belgian colonialism to exploitation, whereas a ‘gift’ confirmed
‘Belgium’s self-image as a benevolent (former) coloniser.24 Forty objects from
the ‘Art of the Congo’ exhibition, however, were soon replaced by ‘equivalent
objects.’ In the end, all objects from the list were replaced, with one exception:
the famous Kuba ndop statue returned in 1976. Despite Cahen’s doubts
concerning local conservation conditions and the dangers of illegal trade,
1,042 other objects were ‘donated’ to the Institut des Musées Nationaux du
Zaïre (imnz) between 1976 and 1982. The vast majority came from the Institut
pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale (irsac) and the Musée
de la Vie Indigène (mvi), two institutes already based in the colony during
colonisation. As Sarah Van Beurden explained, the objects of the irsac were
of minor value and had been transferred to Belgium at the time of Congolese
independence. Hence, they merely ‘returned’ to Congo and not provided
as ‘restitution.’ The objects from the former mvi, a colonial museum in
Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), had been transferred for the Expo 58 in Brussels
and other European exhibitions. By the end of the tour, the mvi director
considered the situation in Congo to be too unstable and deposited the objects
at Tervuren. Since the mvi had become the property of Zaire in 1961, however,
‘there is a legal argument to be made that these objects already belonged to
Zaire.’25 In the end, only 144 objects of minor importance were selected at
Tervuren, causing great disappointment in Kinshasa.26 As a result, the statue
of Ne Kuko, after touring in the United States in the 1960s, was brought back
to Tervuren and did not return to Congo.
24 S. Van Beurden, Authentically African: Arts and the
Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture (Athens
2015) 118-124.
25 Van Beurden, Authentically African, 122.
26 Op. cit., 123.
Demands for restitution and the Congolese independence were
nonetheless major sources of upheaval in Tervuren. According to Huguette Van
Geluwe, ethnography curator at Tervuren, the rmca as a whole became ‘the
focus for claims sometimes of a very radical nature, from the new Congolese
nation, which demanded that it be purely and simply transferred, together
with its contents.’27 Van Geluwe explained in an interview that following
Congolese independence – that questioned the mere existence of a museum in
the metropole – plans were made to appoint a Congolese director alongside the
Belgian one in Tervuren. This idea was pre-empted by establishing the imnz
in Kinshasa in 1970, with Cahen as director. Van Geluwe also explained that in
response to decolonization and the restitution demands, the museum tried to
shed its colonial ‘curse’, by changing its name to the Royal Museum for Central
Africa and by including objects from Oceania, North Africa and the Americas
in a ‘world ethnography’ exhibition in the 1970s.28 The objects of ‘cultures
without writing’ came from the rmah and were obtained through exchanges
providing Art Nouveau objects from the 1897 World Exhibition in Tervuren.
Van Geluwe reported that the ‘spectre of restitution’ seriously curtailed the
museum activities. New temporary exhibitions and publications were avoided,
so as not to instigate new restitution demands.29 Between 1969 and 1975, no
temporary exhibitions were organized in the rmca. Until 1995 rmca expos
did not focus on Congo but on Southern Africa, North Africa, East Africa, West
Africa and even South America.
Ne Kuko’s statue was reintroduced in the permanent exhibition at
Tervuren only in 2007 and was featured in temporary special exhibitions.
However, catalogues offered little or no information on biographies of
people and objects.’30 Despite past complications there, Ne Kuko’s statue
was even shipped to the United States for the ‘Kongo across the Waters’
travelling exhibition.31 In contrast to the United States, where the National
Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989, no recent legal
documents can frame restitution demands in Belgium. As a result, the 1970
unesco Convention still figures as the standard document.32 The final text
acknowledged that local ‘cultural property’ with scientific or artistic value
had to be protected and advised setting up local museums, but the document
27 H. Van Geluwe, ‘Belgium’s Contribution to the
Zairian Cultural Heritage,’ Museum 31:1 (1979) 35.
28 Royal Decree, 23 August 1960.
29 Interview by M. Couttenier, 24 August 2009.
30 Thomas, The Return of Curiosity, 118. K. Heymer,
‘Yombe/Vili,’ in: Afrikanische Skulptur. Die
Erfindung der Figur (Köln 1990) 183. Snoep, ‘Les
minkisi du Congo,’ 45. A.-M. Bouttiaux
(eds.), Geo-graphics: A Map of Art Practices in
Africa, Past and Present (Brussels, 2010) 261.
31 H. Vanhee, ‘Fearsome Agents of Law and Order,’
in: S. Cooksey, R. Poynor and H. Vanhee (eds.),
Kongo across the Waters (Gainesville 2013) 195.
32 J. Volper, ‘Défendons nos musées!,’ Le Figaro, 6
September 2017. For a reaction see: C. Fromont
and H. Vanhee, ‘Restitution d’œuvres aux pays
africains : “Défendons des musées ouverts au
changement !”’, Le Monde, 10 October 2017.
was not retroactive, meaning that all objects already collected before 1970
remained in place, that is in the metropole. As a result, the repeated Congolese
demands for restitution of their kitumba remain silent in Europe, where
eo.0.0.7943 remains thirsty, hungry and powerless.
Since Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s motion picture Les statues
meurent aussi (1953), museums exhibiting mere fragments have repeatedly
been compared to graveyards.33 On several occasions, mute objects, documents
and photographs have been presented to poorly informed visitors. Integrating
provenance research and conflict in creative exhibitions in Europe and Africa,
however, enables visitors to understand the complex, rich and sometimes
restricted results of dialogue and encounters. The Congo Far West project in the
rmca with artists in residence Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza is one
such creative approach to engaging with Congo and has led to exhibitions in
Tervuren (2011) and Lubumbashi (2013). The project – within all its limits –
showed that collaboration not always has to lead to changing ownership of
objects but may include digital solutions and artistic approaches. Creating
diptychs of historical and recent images has brought about interconnected
microhistories that transcended factuality to focus on and question macro-
historical issues, such as power, violence and imperialism.34
Instead of proclaiming oneself, as a scholar, as being ‘in favour’ or
‘against’ restitution, I have highlighted in this text above all the complexities
of the debate; involving geopolitical issues, emotions and practical concerns
(funding, buildings, legal matters, conservation). Provenance research on
eo.0.0.7943, from its violent acquisition, through its rendition of exhibition
history, to recent conversations about the kitumba, has shown that the
restitution debate concerns mainly the formation of European and African
identities still troubled by problematic colonial pasts. Hopefully, further
discussions will enable objects to continue enrich human encounters.
Maarten Couttenier (1974) is a historian and anthropologist at the Royal Museum for
Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium) and specialises in the history of museums, colonial
studies, social memory and African history. Recent publications include: with S. Baloji,
‘The Charles Lemaire Expedition Revisited. Sammy Baloji as a Portraitist of Present
Humans in Congo Far West,’ African Arts 47:1 (2014) 66-81, ‘“One Speaks Softly, Like
in a Sacred Place.” Collecting, Studying and Exhibiting Congolese Artefacts as African
Art in Belgium’, Journal of Art Historiography 12 (2015) 1-40. https://arthistoriography., ‘“With the Risk of Being Called Retrograde,” Racial
Classifications and the Attack on the Aryan Myth by Jean-Baptiste d’Omalius d’Halloy
(1783-1875)’, Centaurus 59:1-2 (2017) 122-151. Email:
33 Thomas, The Return of Curiosity, 22.
34 Baloji, M. Couttenier, ‘The Charles Lemaire
Expedition Revisited. Sammy Baloji as a Portraitist
of Present Humans in Congo Far West,’ African
Arts 47:1 (2014) 68. See also: Congo Far West
(Milano 2011).
This article assesses the extent to which the Africa Museum (AM) decolonised itself according to Sarr and Savoy’s criteria for restitution applied to DR Congo’s cultural heritage. Rather than casting permanent restitution as a single objective, this paper argues that the long-term process consubstantial to the decolonising momentum can break an often-misleading taxonomy down and discern its components as fields of investigation as well as pragmatic steps to rethink the modalities of restitution. The AM’s restructuring of exhibition rooms and epistemes, inventorying, digitisation and provenance studies partly resonate with intermediary restitution practices such as restoration of ethos, recognition of guilt, reparation of broken narratives and reappropriation of knowledge. Nevertheless, the findings of this research show that these initiatives can only be considered as preconditions for restitution – not permanent alternatives designed as retentionist devices – if they are accompanied with a proactive museum diplomacy towards the Musée National de la République Démocratique du Congo (MNRDC).
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