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Subtracting the Narrative

Trade, Collecting, and Forgetting in the Kongo Coast Friction Zone during the Late Nineteenth Century

Zachary Kingdon

Museums can be theorized as sites of forgetting. Furthermore, British traders who collected carved tusks made by Kongo-speaking peoples of the Central African coast in the nineteenth century appear to have had no interest in accounting for the complex narrative scenes that embellished these works. Recent scholarship advocates applying an “archaeological sensibility” (Harrison 2013) that conceptualizes museum collections as “assemblages” in order to reveal new knowledge about collections. This article employs a version of this approach by applying an ichnography, or “science of traces” (Byrne 2013), to the visual narratives carved on tusks in the World Museum Liverpool collection and to the textual narratives of British traders’ from the period, to reveal discrepant and elided themes in these sources. The insights generated by probing the significance of these narrative disjunctions helps provide a “thicker” understanding of the dynamic, cosmopolitan “zone” of cross-cultural interaction from which the tusks were acquired.