Accepted Paper:

'Traces of Congo': challenges in developing a Nordic travelling exhibition on our forgotten contribution to the colonisation of the Congo (DRC)  
Espen Waehle (National Museum of Denmark)

Paper short abstract:

Some 2,000 Nordic individuals were active in the exploration, colonisation and exploitation of the Congo (DRC) from 1870 to 1930. Rich ethnographic collections, publications and archive material have been activated to produce a Nordic travelling exhibition and international seminar series on this issue.

Paper long abstract:

In the Nordic countries it is somehow recognized that Denmark-Norway was a significant player in the transatlantic slave trade, that Denmark colonized Greenland while Sweden's, Norway's and Finland's policy towards the Saami people should be regarded as internal colonization. There is currently, however, hardly any public knowledge regarding the many individuals from our countries who took service for the colonial powers. A most striking case was the Congo Freestate, later Belgian Congo. The exploration, colonization and exploitation of the Congo were major media and public events in the Nordic countries from the 1880'ies to after 1910. Yet, it is largely forgotten that between the 1870'ies and the 1930'ies some 1500-2000 individuals from the Nordic countries played significant roles in both the colonization and the exploitation of the Congo. Most of the Nordic were military officers, sailors, ship's engineers and missionaries while a few lawyers and medical doctors also signed up. A number also worked for concessions companies, mainly on the riverboat fleet and in company stations and outposts. At least a quarter of those working in the Congo contributed to museum collections in the Nordic countries, the Congo collections in museums currently includes more than 32,000 inventory numbers.

In 2003 the Nordic Cultural Fund of the Council of Nordic Ministers awarded a prize for the proposed exhibition "Kongospår. Norden i Kongo - Kongo i Norden" (Traces of Congo - the Nordic countries in the Congo, the Congo in the Nordic countries) to the ethnographic museums in Copenhagen/Denmark, Helsinki/Finland, Oslo/Norway, Stockholm/Sweden in cooperation with Riksutställningar/Swedish Travelling Exhibitions, Stockholm. The exhibition opened November 19th 2005 in Stockholm and with some six months intervals the exhibition will visit Helsinki, Copenhagen (2006), Oslo (2007) - and possibly also to another two Swedish cities. A 96-page catalogue, a number of public events and a series of public and scientific workshops accompany the exhibition. The organizers behind the exhibition intend wrap up the project by editing a substantial volume of Nordic research on the colonization of the Congo, traces of the colonization in the Nordic countries and Congolese and international contributions on both the Congo and the Nordic role in its colonization.

The proposed paper will give a short presentation of the exhibition concept, and relate this to the preparatory discussions between museum staff members and a Nordic reference group of researchers that contributed to the conceptualisation of the exhibition. The journalist and Congo specialist Peter Tygesen and the social anthropologist and Congo specialist Espen Wæhle wrote the manuscript for the exhibition.

Among the exhibition choice issues and discussions I will discuss are the following. How to understand our fellow Nordic contribution to a colonial past and write it up and present it as an exhibition? And how should we handle the limited memory and public knowledge - mainly inspired by Adam Hochschild's successful book (available in both English all Nordic languages) on the horrors during the rubber economy era in the Congo? We saw a certain challenge in regard to the recent received "knowledge" based on Hochschild's book, which actually focused on a limited period of the colonization and was largely relevant in certain regions of the country. And what about the many attempts we saw to generalize from the overall colonial history and apply this as if it was valid for any Nordic individual who had been to the Congo, irrespective of their position, role and responsibilities? Could one possibly talk about both nuances and positive contributions within one of the darkest chapters known in colonial history? How to present contrasts among and between military officers, sailors, explorers, traders and missionaries? Could we approach the Nordic role more directly and more relevant than the Belgian exhibition "La mémoire du Congo. Le temps colonial", Musée d'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren in 2005? Could we manage to make it known that not all our ethnographic collections resulted from violent military expeditions? How could we depict the historic background and context of both the Congo and the Nordic countries as the major colonial encounters took place? How to handle existing traces and relations, the Congolese Diaspora and questions of guilt and responsibility?

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