African and Oceanian Objects in French Museums: Mapping as a Tool for Rethinking Heritage and Historicizing Objects

The collections of African objects in French museums remain rather unknown. Yet the holdings of some 200 French museums contain some 150,000 objects from Africa. This number is far from being really evaluated, even though these museums scrupulously and regularly inventory their collections. There have already been several initiatives in France in the 21st century to gather information about these objects. In particular, there are online inventory projects of dispersed heritages such as Digital Benin. Reconnecting Royal Art Treasures, on the objects of the kingdom of Benin taken during the sack of the city in 1897 and preserved throughout the world. Or the International Inventories Programme, a database project on Kenyan artifacts held around the world, a project involving the National Museums of Kenya and German museums, funded by the Goethe Institute, or the South Sudan Museum Network, a project to compile a directory of museums around the world that hold artifacts from South Sudan. But, on the French side, what was missing was a general overview of the institutions where the objects are kept.

Spoils of war or collections of major scientific missions are fairly well-known. The names of Western collectors and owners are also known because they are valued by the logic of trade, particularly when they were famous artists or gallery owners. The history of French and Western dealers, networks and collectors has been the subject of detailed studies. The names of participants in the scientific missions from the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists and other scientists, are also known and associated with the objects. But the objects themselves—and probably a large majority of the objects in the collections outside Paris—have yet to be systematically investigated in order to identify the contents of the collections and record their history and provenance.

The project “Le Monde en Musée” is partly an inventory, partly an analytical tool. It uses digital tools to offer a platform that is easy to use, synthetic and evolving. It has been developed at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art under the direction of Claire Bosc-Tiessé. This database, expressed in cartographic form, lays new foundations for the history of acquisitions of African objects in France and for the study of the institutionalization of cultural heritage. As Africa, one means the whole continent, north and south. This cartography includes indeed the whole of Africa and goes beyond the Saharan rupture which has structured the organization of collections as well as academic studies, but which is now being questioned by historical research.

Fig. 1 : The homepage of Le Monde en Musée : institutions are located on a map. To the left, the filters. 

This project is part of the project “Vestiges, indices, paradigms: places and times of African objects (14th-19th century)” set up by Claire Bosc-Tiessé in 2017. The section on the Oceanic collections was coordinated by Emilie Salaberry-Duhoux, director of the MAAM (Museums, Archives and Art Library of Angoulême). It develops from the Kimuntu directory, which she had developed between 2008 and 2014, and the directory of Oceanic collections in France created by Roger Boulay. 

It was realized with the Digital Research Service of INHA, Antoine Courtin, its manager until 2021, Federico Nurra (from 2021), and Pierre-Yves Laborde. The main tool is GoGoCarto developed in France by Sebastian Castro and sustained by a very active community. GogoCarto is a free, open-source tool for creating collaborative online maps. Even if still young, it has already been used by more than 1000 projects and is being translated from French into several languages. 

The site is accessed through a world map, which presents institutions located in metropolitan France and overseas. The cartography is visually very pleasing and offers a large amount of information in an intuitive way. Every museum is precisely located. Hovering the mouse over any place gets you its information: the institution’s name, the city that houses it, whether the collections come from Africa and/or Oceania, if the collections are digitized and accessible online, if it has a documentation center, and finally the museum’s status.  Even without using the filters and without restricting the amount of data, the site remains readable. It is also possible to find out if the museum is still open; one important point of this project is also to show the museums that are now closed, noting whether and where the collections have been transferred, so that the history of the objects in French institutions can be traced (e.g., from the Mortain Missionary Museum to Allex). A research tool permits browsing the text, and the map displays the result. 

The wikidata and museofile links appear at the bottom of the file in order to link with other sources of information about each institution.

Fig. 2 : For each museum, a description of the collection is provided. The URL is always quotable. Here

Each museum is accompanied by a description, sometimes very extensive, containing all available information. It provides links to the homepage of the institution and the digitized collections (if any); a description of the collection; its provenance; a select bibliography. These descriptions were not simply harvested from existing databases but synthetized from bibliographic information (museum and regional scientific society newsletters as well as academic studies). The curators in charge of the collection were systematically consulted and some of them participated in the elaboration of this inventory. But indeed, who participated in this project and how did the various participants share information? 

I asked Antoine Courtin why they choose GogoCarto for such a project, as I was surprised that they did not seem to use the collaborative functions, the main assets. The free, non-commercial aspects and the strength of the community of developers behind Gogocarto were the primary reasons for choosing this tool. It is interesting to note that Gogocarto was originally developed in the associative community to create collaborative maps highlighting small-scale networks. But it quickly became clear that it met an expectation for a tool that was easy to use and that allowed for the visualization of online information. It is not a GIS but a tool for publishing on a map with a basic database.

One of the choices that the team of Le Monde en Musée had to make was precisely that of the data entry interface: should everyone create an account on GogoCarto and enter their data directly or, on the contrary, should they use a more easily manipulated spreadsheet? In the end, the latter option won out, and the spreadsheet was shared on a google drive so that external members of the INHA could access it. The IT team backed up the spreadsheet on the INHA servers every 36 hours. These choices took into account the crucial notions of proportionality and reasonableness, so that the management of the project could be adapted to the team’s skills, workload and objectives. If users are discouraged from using the tools, then this is obviously an obstacle to good teamwork. 

Another reason for choosing GogoCarto was that it was very easy to implement it on INHA’s servers since this institution had already worked with some of the software bricks—in particular the php framework—used by GogoCarto. This internalization of the tool on the institution’s servers and the tool’s easy maintenance was also taken into account in choosing it. No external service was necessary, the few developments were done by the digital service team. In particular, one function was added: that of reciprocally linking two data in cases where collections had been transferred from one place to another. This functionality has since been adopted by the GogoCarto application. Thus the development of the tool also benefits from specific implementations.

Fig. 3 : The example of the Missionary Museum of Mortain, now closed, with an indication of the new location of its collections, in the Spiritan Museum of Allex. This new functionality developed for this project now exists in the core tools of GogoCarto.

One question remains: why not use the possibility to collaborate on this mapping, either by connecting to an account or directly? Indeed, GogoCarto allows either modifying an existing datum or creating a new item. But Le Monde en Musée chose not to activate this possibility, partly because this crowdsourcing option requires the active work of community animation and data validation to be effective. Ultimately, the work of the scientific team and the curators who have volunteered to play the game provide the content of the site. 

In conclusion, this project aims to understand how an “African heritage” was constructed in order to provide the means to analyze the histories and origins of each object and, ultimately, to better write the history of Africa. Its audience consists of museum professionals, scholars, and students, and it has been built in order to create bridges between these various audiences. It is a part of a larger research program led by Claire Bosc-Tiessé, and it induces an active collaboration of curators in rethinking the history of African cultural heritage in French institutions. 

How to quote the project: Bosc-Tiessé Claire, Salaberry-Duhoux Emilie, Le monde en musée. Cartographie des collections d’objets d’Afrique et d’Océanie en France, with the collaboration of Camille Ambrosino, Roger Boulay, Coline Desportes, Hélène Guiot, Sarah Lakhal, Floriane Philippe, Louise-Elisabeth Queyrel, Jacopo Ranzani, Yongsong Zheng, Paris, INHA, [Online], online since 28 September 2021 

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