Provenance Research Project
The PROCHE project (MB21 - PROvenance Research on the Ethnographic Collection - Herkomstonderzoek op de Ethografische collectie) is a federal science policy program implemented by the AfricaMuseum.
PROCHE was initiated in response to the many social and political discussions that have intensified over the years to understand the historical context and the modes of acquisition of Congolese cultural heritage during the colonial period. Thus, the AfricaMuseum has increased research efforts on the provenance of its ethnographic collections, particularly those from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
To ensure transparency in discussions about the origin of the cultural heritage in its care, the AfricaMuseum wishes to provide access to the inventory of the collections concerned. This inventory of 83,234 cultural objects managed by the AfricaMuseum, originating from the DRC and more broadly from Central Africa, was transmitted to the Congolese Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde in February 2022, by the Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Secretary of State Thomas Dermine.
An online database
The goal of provenance research is to document the entire acquisition process of a cultural good and to contextualize its various historical backgrounds, so that any person or organization may conduct their own investigations to determine the licit, illicit or indefinable nature of a transaction (e.g., a looting, a theft, a transfer, or a gift). This is a work ‘in progress’ that will be continuously renewed through new data and knowledge.
The provenance research project does not aim to determine the legal or moral status of the collections but to compile, index, and analyse available data on the circumstances that led to their registration as cultural heritage of the Belgian federal government. This will be achieved in the first place by publishing the available information online through an open access database in order to allow the widest access to anyone interested.
In-depth research will be carried out by a mixed team of researchers from the AfricaMuseum and Congolese academic and heritage institutions specialized in history, anthropology, art history and law. This teamwork will be reinforced by field research and the valorization of other forms of knowledge, that will provide complementary and critical readings of archival data. This approach allows for a better historical and social understanding of the creation of the museum's collections.
Multivocality in progress
Through its network the Institut des musées nationaux du Congo (IMNC) is an essential partner in this research in partnership with the academic sector, and other heritage institutions in the DRC. The IMNC and the AfricaMuseum constitute two institutions with a long-lasting historical interweaving1. This bilateral approach intends to develop a methodology that incorporates the available information in Belgium and the DRC, with the aim of clarifying the historical provenance of the objects.
A program of research visits, PhD’s and continued communication between the partners will provide a fresh perspective on the collections and more understanding of the objects they contain. Providing access to information and facilitating transparent discussions are prerequisites allowing for different perspectives and readings to meet within these collections.
A focus on people
The collection covers over 80,000 inventory numbers. In order to manage the collection as a whole, and to shed as much light as possible on the context of acquisition, we have chosen to focus not on the objects themselves, but on the various people involved in their acquisition. Through whom did these collections become part of Belgium's heritage? What were the roles of the people involved? Military? Colonial administrator? Commercial agent? What information is available about the original owners? Many legal entities, such as companies or religious congregations, are also involved in the making process of this collection.
Biographical research in acquisition files and personal archives, both inside and outside the AfricaMuseum, will enable us to identify several categories in terms of the roles/professional occupations of these people, such as art dealers, colonial administrators, military personnel, missionaries, scientists, etc. Of course, this categorization of people has its limits, as a person's activities cannot be reduced to his or her title or profession (especially as some had long, diversified, nuanced or even paradoxical careers). Nonetheless, it will enable us to establish a statistical assessment of the types of networks involved in the process.
We currently have identified 2,300 names of people/institutions associated with the 83,423 objects from the DRC and Central Africa. A rapid analysis of these names has also provided some methodological guidelines, particularly in terms of quantitative priority. We know that the majority of these names, 983 people, are associated with just one object; small collections of 2 to 10 objects involve 750 people, more than half of whom (383) are linked to just two objects. Larger collections of 10 to 100 objects are associated with 480 names, while 123 people are linked to sets comprising between 100 and 1000 objects. Finally, only 18 people are linked to collections containing more than 1000 objects. Of course, the same collection may refer to more than one person, for example the "collector" and his/her/their heirs who donated, sold or bequeathed the collection to the museum.
From these names, we will consult the institutional and/or private archives associated with them, to see if they also contain information on the object's original owner. Information on the "agents" will enable us to make assessments of the possible modalities of the transaction, or at least of the nature of the relation between the agents involved.
However, more precise information resulting from this research can only be published in accordance with current legislation concerning the protection of privacy. For this reason, dates of birth and/or death should be the immediate priority. At the moment, they are known for only 326 of the more than 2,300 people associated with the acquisitions of the Africa Museum’s collections.
1. S. Van Beurden, Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational politics of Congolese Culture, Ohio University Press, Colombus, 2015