Transformative heritage. Customary governance, community building and digital restitution in contemporary Northeast Congo

Start - End 
2020 - 2023 (ongoing)
Other institution(s) 
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Université de l'Uélé, DRCongo
Université de Kisangani, DRCongo



The central objective of this project is to explore the transformative potential of material heritage from Northeastern Congo. The first aim is to valorize it as a resource for research of customary authorities in local government today, and the second aim is to explore its potential as a resource for education and community building in a politically vulnerable region. These goals are intertwined: the local population sees the loss of ritual objects through colonial collecting practices and war, and the loss of touch with traditions more generally - especially by customary leaders - as reasons for the poor state of society. Despite the challenges, customary authorities still play a key role in local government in the relative absence of state power.

First, the project strives for a non-Eurocentric scientific review of traditional authority as multi-layered and negotiable, based on fieldwork, archive and collection research by focusing on customary authority as multilayered, plural and not only instilled in chiefs. The study of ritual objects and practices, a field foreign to political science, helps to gain deeper insights into customary authority as a plurality and associated armed militias in the present, as a continuity of historically rooted political cultures.

Second, reconnecting communities with cultural heritage is investigated as a method to improve social cohesion and well-being. Congolese universities and source communities will gain access to Western collection databases as a resource for education and community building. Applications are foreseen in the project.





Hein Vanhee

Department of Cultural Anthropology and History - Royal Museum for Central Africa