Sensing Through White Gloves: On Congolese Objects in Swedish Sceneries

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Abstract:

The article discusses collectibles acquired by Swedish missionaries and military officers active within the ill-reputed Congo Free State (1885–1908). Objects are approached here not primarily as tokens of Congolese material culture but as traces of a transnational cultural history and as points of entry to a critical museology. Drawing on case studies of collections I discuss the ways in which artifacts have been selected, joined and charged with new functions and meanings on their voyage between hands, narratives and genres.

In focus are five examples of objects 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. By adding material to the Barthian concept I want to stress that such analytical impulses may be evoked by all senses. During an inventory of Swedish Congolese collections, when the historical state of stored museum items as untouchables could temporarily be broken, their multisensory material presences proved able to challenge textual discourses, serve as alternative witnesses and demonstrate hidden significances of ethnographical museums and collections.

Keywords: COLLECTIONS; COLONIALISM; CONGO FREE STATE; MATERIAL PUNCTUM; MUSEUMS OF ETHNOGRAPHY

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/174589309X388573

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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