“A Congo of One’s Own? The collection of Jeanne Walschot at the RMCA”

Agnès Lacaille, Royal Museum for Central Africa Tervuren

This paper proposes to present and discuss the preparation of a temporary exhibition at the RMCA that uses the former private collection of Jeanne Walschot as a basis to explore broader themes such as the history of colonial collections, African Art market, provenance research, and the broader long-term impact of cultural colonialism.
Jeanne Walschot (1896-1977) was a Brussels collector and dealer of Congolese objects. From the beginning of the 1920s, she built up an immense collection exclusively in Belgium, mainly through colonial networks (commercial, political and cultural). Moreover, she was active throughout the Belgian colonial period (1910-1960), Independence and the first post-colonial period of the Congo. Her collection was acquired by the museum between 1977 and 1980.

More than 3,000 objects arrived at the museum through Walschot. This constitutes nearly 3% of the entire so-called ethnographic collections of the institution. The exceptional character of this collection of objects is also due to the existing documentation on them, mainly a large photographic collection constituted in the 1920s-1930s (collection of the photo-reporter Germaine Van Parys) and rare private archives associated with them (at the RMCA, other institutions and private collections)
Dedicating an exhibition to a woman may appear to be a real challenge for the museum, whose narratives are generally masculine, with a colonial history that is mainly constructed, written and relayed by men. The detailed history of the museum’s collections allows us to qualify this observation with the appearance of female figures, notably through scientific missions or through donations or purchases made from couples.

A single woman, Walschot nevertheless remains a singular case that illustrates – in the feminine – the multiple facets of the socio-cultural activities and issues surrounding the construction of a private collection of Congolese art in Belgium.
Such a “metropolitan” (Walschot never visited Congo) and quasi-mundane (actors are private collectors, journalists, writers, intellectuals, artists) focus for the exhibition may seem outdated.
Located at the geographical margin of the colonial phenomenon, Walschot’s biography can nevertheless illustrate its center, due to its proximity (immediate periphery) and its affinities (networks) with the circles of political power in the vicinity of the Ministry of Colonies in Brussels (“quartier Royal”).

Moreover, the legacy of the Walschot collection (she died in 1977) was initiated in 1976 and led to its registration in 1980. It is therefore a synchronous process with the transfers of objects from the RMCA to the IMNZ (1976-1982) following Mobutu’s speech at the UN in 1973. Because of this tense political context, an exhibition (planned by the will) never took place.
With this step back in time, the organizers wish to anchor the exhibition directly in today’s debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums, attempting to critically deconstruct an entire ethnographical collection at the RMCA and to address new perspectives about museum collections narratives, past and future.

Agnès Lacaille, MA, is an art historian and museologist. Since 2020 she is employed at the RMCA in the Department of Heritage Studies where she conducts provenance research on objects from the institutional collections focusing on those on display in the permanent exhibition. During her training, she has performed research on western colonial history of several collections of African objects. Her MA (2003) was the incentive for an exhibition and a joint publication in 2007. She has conducted preparatory doctoral research on the history of trade and art market of Congolese objects in Belgium and the link between the art market and Belgian museums.
From this she has a rich experience in investigating institutional as well as a number of private archives and in doing so, in visualizing Belgian actors in international networks of art trade and of appropriation and acquisition modes of Congolese objects. As she has been a collection registrar for many years at the RMCA (2005-2011), she has gained an expertise (using and developing inventory tools) about the quality of the data that can be derived from the internal archival and digital sources of the museum. In her more recent capacity, Agnès Lacaille has published a series of ten articles on the provenance of objects in the collections on the museum’s website.