African Studies Seminar Week 8

Convener: Rebekah Lee

Speaker: Rita Almaral (Utrecht University)

Missionary (Re)collecting from a Collapsing Empire: Museum Collections and the Dutch Spiritan Fathers in Late Colonial Angola


The late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, roughly the period known as the Scramble for Africa, is generally taken as a key moment when expeditions and other operations (including violent colonial occupation campaigns) led to the circulation of objects and collections that can be found today in museums across Europe. By contrast, the late colonial and early postcolonial periods, roughly from the Second World War to the 1970s, are rarely considered or sufficiently discussed in the scholarship on collecting and museum collections.


In this presentation, I will discuss the issue of collecting and museum-making associated with Catholic missionary activity in Angola during the late colonial period. I will focus on the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, particularly its Dutch members, and the collections they assembled after the Second World War that can be found today at the National Museum of World Cultures (NMVW) in the Netherlands. Some of these missionary collectors continued working in Angola during the liberation war and after independence in 1975. What led the Dutch Spiritans to assemble Angolan cultural artefacts and bring them to the Netherlands from the 1950s onwards? Can these collections tell us something about the lives of Christianised African communities that were experiencing the tensions of a collapsing empire? And about how the Spiritans dealt with decolonisation in Angola?


I will problematise some of these questions drawing on my ongoing work with two main sources: the collections at the NMVW; and a set of interviews with Dutch Spiritans about their missionary life in Angola conducted by the oral history project KomMissieMemoirs, developed by Nijmegen University in 1976. I will give particular attention to the case of father Jan Vissers and his brother Frans Vissers, who worked in the northwestern and north-central regions of Angola, where they assembled hundreds of objects for Dutch museums, but also for others in Belgium and the USA.


Ana Rita Amaral is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of Utrecht University. She is part of the project Pressing Matter: Ownership, Value and the Question of Colonial Heritage in Museums, funded by the Netherlands National Research Agenda.