Introduction to Africa Beyond Africa: Selected Conference Proceedings

Yves Abrioux, Professor of English
University of Paris 8 (Vincennes in Saint-Denis)

Kenneth J. Knoespel, McEver Professor of Engineering and Liberal Arts
Georgia Institute of Technology


The conference devoted to Africa-Beyond Africa: The Future of Humanistic, Scientific, and Technological Research was among the many events that grew from the vision of Africa Atlanta. First and foremost the conference complemented the exhibition, Kongo Across the Waters, at the Carter Center (May-September 2014). Coordination of the Carter Center exhibition allowed the Ivan Allen College at Georgia Tech to bring together scholars from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, as well as friends and colleagues who had worked on facets of Africa Atlanta. The selection of articles in the following pages provide insight into several areas important for the Carter Center Exhibition as well for the future of the Museum.

The importance of international research devoted to contemporary Africa was stressed in the opening presentations by Johnnetta Cole and Guido Gryseels. In recognition of the importance of the exhibition Kongo Across the Waters, Johnnetta Cole’s paper, ‘An Introduction to Africa Atlanta, 2014,’ described the resonance between her work as Director of Museum of Africa Art at the Smithsonian Institute and the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Her strong vision of the importance of international research devoted to the study of Africa celebrated the opportunity created for work extending beyond any single exhibition. Just as the Carter Center exhibition shared the wealth of resources from Tervuren, the conference at Georgia Tech invited the Director of the Royal Museum to share his vision of the museum’s future. Guido Gryssels discussion, ‘Towards the renewal and the renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa,’ celebrates the many ways the new Tervuren has become a major institution operating on an international scale to provide research materials and technical resources, not only to the Congo, but indeed for all of Africa.

Examples of work devoted to science and medicine appears in papers presented by Tine Huyse and Evans M. Harrell. In her paper, ‘The Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the introduction of human diseases: the case of schistosomiasis,’ Huyse shows how molecular DNA markers allow biologists to reconstruct the transmission pathways of Schistosoma mansoni from West Africa into the South America during the 16th century slave trade and thus to trace the forced movement of populations from their point of departure in Africa to their destination in the New World. Evans Harrell, in turn, demonstrates the significance of Neil Turok’s observation that Africa is a ‘fertile ground for research in applied mathematics.’ Harrell shows how mathematical modeling of Senegal River flooding has served as a means for applied training of a new generation of African mathematicians. Inverting, so to speak, the logic of a project such as this, Harrell concludes by suggesting the mathematical sophistication of a traditional African artifact, the lukasa boards used by the political élite of the Central African Luba peoples, that function as interfaces for stimulating and ordering discourse in a multiplicity of narrative and didactic contexts. A lukasa board was one of the prime exhibits in the exhibition Africa Beyond Paper at the Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking, Georgia Institute of Technology (February-June, 2014), also in the context of Africa Atlanta. The catalogue may be consulted here.

The papers delivered by Corinne Kratz and Kavita Singh at the Africa Beyond Africa conference challenged the audience to think carefully about the ways that museums should be approached as research institutions for communities across the globe and not only for the public interested in art. Kratz and Singh develop complementary challenges to think of ‘art museums’ as ethnographic museums. All too often the museum is conceived as a repository of valuable goods that remain viewed as aesthetic objects under glass. Contrary to such an approach, which is shaped in fundamental ways by the European invention of ‘art history’ and ‘aesthetics,’ Kratz and Singh underline how museums may be viewed as ethnographic. In her paper, ‘Adapting and Transforming Ethnographic Exhibits,’ Kratz provided examples from her own research in Africa that show the ways small street museums in Africa provide a vehicle for constructing and questioning social identity and change. Singh’s contribution, ‘The Future of the Museum is Ethnographic,’ in turn provided an overview of international museum developments that challenge curators and museum visitors alike to think about the ways the artifacts in museum collections may be approached, not as examples for aesthetic appreciation, but as vehicles for cultural understanding. We need to think more clearly about the way the ethnographical museum is, consciously or not, becoming the paradigm for the museum as such. An earlier version of Singh’s paper and another paper by Kratz were first presented at the conference on The Future of Ethnographic Museums held at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Keble College, University of Oxford, 19-21 July, 2013, to mark the culmination of the five-year Ethnography Museums and World Cultures (EMWC) research project funded by the European Commission.

Finally, Abrioux and Knoespel’s paper, ‘Un musee à venir: What did we learn from the Louvre-Atlanta Exhibitions?’ was originally presented at a conference sponsored by the labex (laboratoire d’excellence) Arts-H2H, headed by the University of Paris 8, and French National Archives, 21-23 June 2012. Using their work around the Louvre-Atlanta exhibitions (2006-2009) as a departure point, the authors argue that new viewing practices afforded by digital technologies should be implemented to transform museum experience and lead it away from the narrow perspective of didactic art history, so often applied to Western ‘high’ art and non-Western artifacts alike. Can museums become more democratic institutions, engaging their visitors in a variety of ways across a range of experiential practices? Respect both for museum visitors and for the cultures that produced the artifacts on display demands that this should be the case.