Congo in Kinshasa
This is a report of my visit to the National Museums of the Congo in Kinshasa from June 1 to June 8, 2022. Prior to my visit, there had been communication between myself and the museum Director regarding the possibility of donating objects from my collection to the museum and helping museum personnel acquire other objects from collectors in the United States and elsewhere. After discussions with museum personnel, some of whom I knew from years past, it became clear that another major issue was the ongoing budgetary needs to keep the museum operating and maintained. After a preliminary meeting with former employees of the museum and current individuals working there, I arranged a visit to the museum on Saturday, June 4, 2022.
Firstly, I was extremely impressed by the new museum building. After seeing only the back rooms near the presidential palace in the past, this was a monumental accomplishment by the Government of South Korea. I think their strategy of using museum spaces to celebrate national culture and educate local and international populations about the importance of such culture is an excellent way of supporting the creation of a national conscience and, in the case of the DRC, a more unified nation. My only concern is that there should be greater recognition of the contribution made by South Korea to this beautiful monument to traditional culture.
I was met with open arms by the Director and his staff and given a tour of the facility. It is magnificent. Again, I congratulate the South Koreans who have done an extraordinary job of creating a beautiful building with an African motif and all of the needed electronics and facilities to house a first-rate museum. The potential, if properly managed, for the museum to become a tourist attraction of great interest to people who want to learn about ethnographic art and the history of objects used in our common evolution.
The photos illustrated here are of the exterior of the building and the sophisticated computer training and presentation room, as well as some of the current exhibitions, which included photographs by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith apparently sponsored by the US Embassy.
In an extensive meeting with the museum Director, his Director of Education, and the Director of Media and External Relations, we outlined future efforts to help the museum become more self-supporting and, in particular, to ensure that any objects that were returned to the museum as donations or repatriation were suitably curated and maintained.
The Director was very forthcoming and stated that the museum needed to be Africanized as opposed to focusing on the early history when Europeans had been in charge. He felt that there was a need for a greater explanation of objects and their use and context, which would require insights that would have to emerge from within the culture. His general critique was positive, and he recognized the prior contributions of people such as Brother Joseph Corne, the first Director of the Museum, and Charlie Henneault, one of the first field collectors. He had been trained early in his career by both of these individuals.
He also graciously accepted the idea that we could help with repatriating objects. I explained to him the mechanism we have utilized in the past. This involves objects being donated to a foundation in the United States created in part for the purposes of supporting donations from the US to other countries and other entities. This foundation, called the Heritage Foundation for Arts and Cultural Sustainability, is based in New Orleans and has received the objects that will be donated to the Kinshasa museum. It is also available as a mechanism to raise donations and other funds for capacity building and related activities for the museum.
We also discussed whether it would be appropriate to start a nonprofit foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support the museum. By having both public and private options searching collectively for alternative sources of income, there is a much greater chance of sustaining the beautiful space. There is also the possibility of including short-term training in the museum space to raise unrestricted income. Finally, a museum store may provide direct income to the museum and could possibly be operated by the local foundation.
The Director was in general agreement with all of these points and particularly wanted to work with us to establish better contacts with the museums in the African diaspora and the museum training program at Southern University in New Orleans.
I also explained that we were working with the government of Colombia and, in particular, the city of Cartagena, to organize donations of Congolese objects that would be part of the African heritage movement in Colombia. The Director was very supportive of this initiative as well, and we agreed to write a collective letter to the museum Director in Cartagena.