CONGOCONNECT (2015-2019) is a network project funded by the BRAIN program of the Belgian Federal Ministry of Science. It consists in a collaboration between three partner institutions : Ghent University, the Royal Museum for Central Africa and the KASK (Royal Academy of Fine Arts). The purpose of the project is to study in an interdisciplinary perspective ethnographic collections from the north-east of the Congo of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA).
The north-east of the Congo, as a cultural bridge between Equatorial and Interlacustrine Africa, has been an important region in the history of Africa, geographically, culturally and politically. The collections from this region at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, consisting of ethnographic objects, photographs, films and archives are rich and unique material sources of a region undergoing major changes through an intense history of contacts (slave trade, colonial conquest, postcolonial conflicts). This network project intends to study the collections as sources in light of different disciplines and in an international perspective, in conjunction with other collections and archives.
Despite abundant interest in the contemporary history of north-east Congo, focussed primarily on conflict research, the history of the pre-colonial and colonial era has remained poorly studied. A large collection from this region was assembled during an important scientific expedition for the RMCA in the history of the Belgian Congo by A. Hutereau (1911-13). This expedition competed with other major expeditions from the American Museum of Natural History (1909-15) and from the Ethnology Museum in Berlin (1907-8). Approximately 8.000 objects were collected for the RMCA and they have remained – largely unstudied – until present-day in the storage rooms. The Hutereau collection and many smaller sets of objects collected throughout the colonial period represent a unique part of both colonial scientific heritage and of the cultural heritage of north-east Congo.
The core of our interdisciplinary approach consists in studying in an integrative way, 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 histories. Thirdly, it is taken as a crucial scholarly and moral principle that communities from which the heritage derives are to be acknowledged and involved in processes of reconstruction and representation of their history.