Accepted Paper:

Material punctum: Congolese objects in Swedish sceneries  
Lotten Gustafsson Reinius (Stockholm University)

Paper short abstract:

How may objects, acquired by Swedes in the Congo Free State, be approached as traces of European cultural history? Suggested points of entry are artefacts analytically working as punctum (Barthes 1981); ungrammatical details that may reveal unspoken significances of museum collections.

Paper long abstract:

The Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm houses approximately 12 000 objects from areas, within the boundaries of today's two states of Congo. Most of them where acquired and brought to Sweden by missionaries and military officers, active within the badly reputed Congo Free State (1885-1908). The collections bare witness of a part of Swedish history that for long remained rather unknown by most Swedes. Recently, the travelling exhibition KongospÄr (Traces of the Congo), a cooperative effort of four major Nordic ethnographic museums and the Swedish Travelling Exhibitions, challenged this collective oblivion.

KongospÄr attempts to break with former exhibition conventions in several ways. Avoiding the vague and static temporality, that Johannes Fabian (1983) has called "the ethnographic present" it contextualizes collections by focusing on their acquisition in a specific - and troublesome - point in time. Consequently, far from being hid, the roles of individual collectors as well as of contemporary museum institutions are brought into light.

This presentation discusses how collections may be analyzed when approached, not primarily as tokens of Congolese material culture, but as traces of Swedish cultural history and European expressive conventions. Through case studies of individual collections, created by male and female Swedes with differing roles in the colonial process, I focus on the ways in which objects have been selected and joined to form new meaningful entities. My points of departure are single artefacts that, analytically, have worked as what Roland Barthes (1980) calls punctum: the detail that disturbs and fascinates by force of seeming ungrammatical in relation to the larger context of which it forms part. Paradoxically, it is by focusing on such seeming oddities - as a pair of worn out slippers among pompous military trophies or an industrially produced window opener in a traditional lukobe box - that unspoken significances of the collections as a whole may be read. I will exemplify how Congolese objects, while entering the scenery of Swedish collections, could change their meaning and function in order to serve as the collector's individual and collective expression of self.

Cited references:

Barthes, Roland 1980 La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie. (Paris: Gallimard).

Fabian, Johannes 2002 (1983) Time and the Other. How anthropology makes its object. (New York: Colombia University Press).

Panel IW06
Museums, anthropology and the representation of the colonial past