Kongo across the US: From Princeton to New Orleans

Laura Nemmers, Former Registrar of the Harn

Kongo across the Waters recently closed at the New Orleans Museum of Art. This momentous venture established in partnership with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), was the Harn’s first internationally coordinated traveling exhibition. It started at the Harn then travelled to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Princeton and most recently NOMA. Many of its objects have never been exhibited before in the United States.

Protectors of the Art

For me, as the Harn Museum of Art’s Registrar at the time, the beginning of this venture meant paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. With many of the works travelling from Belgium to the U.S., a governmental insurance agreement—known as international indemnity—had to be reached between the borrowing and lending countries to ensure protection of the art. Additionally, like other culturally historic art, the rich and sometimes troubled heritage also warrants intricate contracts. Strict protocols on the import and export of any endangered animal or fauna material such as feathers, shells and bone are monitored by the provisions of CITES within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services under the Endangered Species Act to avoid the illegal or immoral appropriation and trade. Other details are laid out in the exhibition loan agreements. In the case of Kongo, a Harn contracted courier, trained to handle art, (meaning me or one of my staff) has to be with the art at all times as it travels and until the exhibition is installed.

With these agreements and restrictions in place and in preparation for the exhibition’s southern jaunt to New Orleans, Elizabeth Bemis, Harn Registrar for Exhibitions and Loans and I traveled to the Princeton University Museum of Art to de-install the exhibition.

“Show Down” in Princeton

Or should I say “Snow Down in Princeton?” Our plane touched down on Monday, January 26 at the Newark airport where warnings of a “monster blizzard” were buzzing.  We Floridians breathed a sigh of relief as our pilot announced that we were the last flight into the Newark for the day. Much of New Jersey, including Princeton University, were shut down. Headed towards the hotel, we crept at 30 mph on the usually busy but virtually abandoned interstate due to the Governor’s declared state of emergency with a set travel ban. We were slated to begin the de-installation of Kongo across the Waters on Tuesday morning, but with the weather situation we had been warned that the Museum staff may not be able to get to work. Thankfully we were in a warm hotel with friendly staff, hot tea and cookies.

Left: Princeton Museum of Art, Right: Snow-covered Princeton campus

Tuesday morning the University and Museum would again be closed to all non-essential staff, so we made the best of the day by taking a few abbreviated walks in the snow and meeting to plan the logistics for tackling the de-installation of this complex exhibition in only six days. As it turned out, the “monster blizzard” was merely a “fluffy snow day.” On Wednesday we dove into the de-installation, meeting with the Princeton Museum prep team and organizing how best to proceed with such limited time and an extensive to-do list. It was great seeing objects that were old friends as we recorded the condition of the works—a requirement when de-installing. We talked to the staff about the show and learned of visitors’ reactions to the exhibition. I always enjoy talking to the guards since they are in the center of it all interacting with the public. One guard, Connie, told me that she received many positive comments, including one visitor who is already planning to go to New Orleans to see the show again at its fourth and final venue.


Left: Protective crates for the art, Right: Condition reporting an artifact

After de-installing all of the objects in less than one week (whew!), we had a day to organize and pack the final crates, all of the mounts, as well as the materials—another vast but meticulous task. Tuesday, February 3, Harn Preparator Tim Joiner arrived from the Harn—luckily in much better weather circumstances than us—to be the courier on the moving truck to transport the art from Princeton to New Orleans the next day. The morning of February 4, the three of us assisted in loading the truck with all of the crates for the exhibition, and Betsy and I bid farewell to our kind friends at Princeton, the objects that we have grown to know and love, and to Tim Joiner as he prepared for his long journey to the Big Easy.


Left: Courier team from the Harn (left to right: me, Elizabeth Bemis, Tim Joiner), Right: New Orleans Museum of Art