Return from Angola, Ethnography Museum of Neuchâtel

With Return from Angola, the MEN team looks back on a key episode in the history of the institution: the 2nd Swiss Scientific Mission in Angola (MSSA), which was led by Neuchâtel researchers from 1932 to 1933 and which has supplied the Museum with a large part of its African collections.

By taking a particular interest in Théodore Delachaux (1879-1949), artist, collector, scientist, member of the expedition and curator of the Museum of Ethnography from 1921 to 1945, his “after-followers” also question the purpose of the mission as the current issues related to the study and conservation of the materials collected.

From the field to the reserves, between “star” objects and barely unpacked collections, the paradoxes of ethnographic and museum practice are outlined and the debates devoted to the means necessary to assume the heritage are resurfacing.

Such an examination of the past requires a critical approach, since it is not a matter of naively endorsing the categories of thought in force at the time, but also a capacity for retreat, since it is not a question either to judge the predecessors from contemporary intellectual postures. The device chosen highlights the singularities and differences in sensitivity between yesterday and today from the materials produced by the participants in the Mission themselves, the scenography bringing a critical eye in a non-peremptory manner and the visitor becoming the filter to from which the past can be both understood and put into perspective.

Retour d’Angola also offers the MEN team the opportunity to discover a set of objects and photographs unique in the world, most of which have not been shown to the public since the 1940s and inaugurate a new kind of long-term temporary exhibition dedicated to showcasing the Museum’s collections.

The first space evokes the multiple facets of Théodore Delachaux, curator of the MEN from 1921 to 1945 and thus expresses a certain quality of the look he will then bring to the people and things of Angola.

Backdrop to the exercise, his interest in the natural sciences, evoked in clear by the wallpaper and the drawing of the freshwater Polychete worm (Troglochaetus beranecki) which he discovered and drew in 1919, and more implicitly because the omnipresence of natural sciences in the exhibition.

Théodore Delachaux was ten years old when he published his first plankton study boards and ended his career as director of the Natural History Museum. Between these two moments, he developed a vision of art and ethnography inseparable from the naturalist paradigm, of which he made the center of his research process.

In the four corners of the space is the evocation of the intuitive folklorist who, from an early age, constitutes a collection of toys and peasant crafts, asserting a deep sensitivity to ethnographic questions and methods. Also appears the methodical scientist who tackles the first systematic cataloging of the Museum’s collections and invests in research and teaching in archeology.

Beyond the naturalist and the ethnographer, the space also evokes the versatile artist who follows the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, teaches drawing, practices painting, co-founded a private art school, opens a gallery and creates stained glass windows for the collegiate church of Neuchâtel.

The second space discusses the preparations for the expedition and the motivations of the ethnographer before setting out on the “field” that Albert Monard (1886-1952), curator of the Natural History Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Charles Emile Thiébaud (1910-1995), geologist, has already been surveying for several months.

The scenography is essentially constructed from the handwritten notes of Théodore Delachaux: lists of objects to take away, bibliographical references, preparatory talk and list of activities to remember try to express the tension that precedes any leap into the unknown.

Through the layers of notes, the motivations of the ethnographer are briefly developed: filling certain gaps in the collections, practicing a rescue ethnography, investing in a little known territory, passing on a heritage to future generations are the main vectors of a reflection which is undoubtedly a little dated but which nonetheless constitutes knowledge and a heritage to be rethought. In the background also appear some images of the 1st MSSA (1928-1929) which, if it was primarily a hunting party, nevertheless offered a matrix from which the following was thought.

In the field
In their luggage, the members of the 2 nd MSSA also carry two cameras. Nearly 2,500 photos taken by Charles Emile Thiébaud and Théodore Delachaux thus complete the collection of objects, document the trip and testify to the vision carried by the two researchers on the populations encountered. Whether hunting scenes, scarifications, adornments or female ornaments, their point of view is part of the iconographic production of the time and illustrates today, alongside a bygone world, some through or limits of their approach.

The third room of the exhibition mobilizes this rich photographic heritage in order to evoke the “field”, emphasizing both the shock of the meeting, the weight of the collection, the polysemy of the ethnographic framework and the ambiguities specific to this type of research. The travel reports proposed in legend reveal the intellectual context of apprehension of the other and recall that the colonial presence of Portugal influences and facilitates the Neuchâtel mission.

At first glance, around twenty photos underline the pictorial and analytical quality of the work carried out by Théodore Delachaux and indicate through their careful staging the current trend towards the hoarding of such documents. A scenographic device blurs this reading and reveals that the images presented are part of a larger whole where the repetition of certain shots lets glimpse the classificatory and typological obsession characteristic of the naturalist paradigm.

The big unpacking
The last space presents the return of Angola proper, namely the process which, from unpacking to study, restoration and enhancement of objects, ultimately leads to questioning the deep meaning of the expedition. The 2nd MSSA is part of the collection missions that run through different parts of Africa during the 1930s. The collection of objects listed in the field then represents the foundation of the ethnographic approach. The selected pieces are intended to increase the documentary holdings of the museums, focused at that time on the study of series and typologies of objects.

Presented in display cases or put in boxes, then stored in reserves, these 3500 inventory numbers today form a major collection of the MEN collections. Following Théodore Delachaux, new possibilities for scientific exploitation are emerging and solutions are being deployed to deal with conservation and inventory problems. Here as elsewhere, the museum process does not stop at the freezing of the objects brought back but develops a new type of relation to a heritage whose property and responsibility are constantly to be rethought and redefined.

It’s not mine
The visit ends with a questioning on the nature of the collections brought back by Théodore Delachaux and leads to a more general reflection on the ethnographic heritage, of which Return from Angola should not be the outcome but the trigger.

Fill these gaps which so obsessed Théodore Delachaux and his predecessors? What links do they maintain with the populations that sold them? Would they have lost on entering the Museum the immaterial dimension which made them real objects of knowledge on their land? Is it, as we sometimes hear it said, of the “heritage of others” or is the expression only an easy way to refer to former owners who have long since disappeared? Will their market value continue to climb with the scarcity of collections of the same type?

And what to do with this answer, given several times to Théodore Delachaux when he was looking for a precious object: “I cannot sell it, it is not mine”? Isn’t it basically the essence of all heritage to not be owned by anyone while being that of everyone? And wouldn’t the foundation of the heritage contract consist in remaining available and open in the face of new situations of dialogue between the cultures concerned? it’s not mine” ? Isn’t it basically the essence of all heritage to not be owned by anyone while being that of everyone?

Ethnography Museum of Neuchâtel
Contributes to the development of museums open to everyday life. Widely recognized as innovative, stimulating, even provocative, its exhibitions offer visitors an original reflection around a theme closely linked to current events and put into perspective by the gaze that is both involved and distant from ethnology. They bring together here and elsewhere, the prestigious and the mundane, the artisanal and the industrial as so many signs of a complex and culturally oriented reality.

In such a framework, the objects are not exhibited for themselves but because they fit into a discourse, because they become the arguments of a story that puts one or the other of their characteristics, whether these are aesthetic, functional or symbolic. Sometimes described as critical or destabilizing, such an approach aims to allow visitors to relativize their perceptions, deconstruct their knowledge and question their certainties in order to bring them to rethink their reality.

The history of the collections of the Museum of Ethnography of Neuchâtel (MEN) dates back to the 18th century, the first pieces being from the Natural History Cabinet of General Charles Daniel de Meuron given to the City in 1795. After several moves and sharing, the ethnographic fund was transferred on the hill of Saint-Nicolas in the villa offered by James-Ferdinand de Pury to install the MEN there, inaugurated on July 14, 1904. In 1954-55 was built a building intended for temporary exhibitions, decorated to the north of a mural by Hans Erni The Conquests of Man. In 1986, a new construction was inserted between the two previous ones to allow the extension of the University’s Institute of Ethnology.

Financially separate, the two institutions are nonetheless complementary. They share the same library and occasionally engage in joint ventures. Today, the MEN houses some 30,000 objects, more than half of which is represented by African collections: East and South Africa; Angola in the 1930s; Sahara and Sahel (Tuaregs and Moors); Gabon. It also conserves Asian, Eskimo and Oceanic collections, extra-European musical instruments and pieces from ancient Egypt.