Mangbetu Royal Art and Herbert Lang, 1902-1906

by Enid Schildkrout
Museum for African Art (formerly American Museum of Natural History)

Interior of the Great Hall. Mangbetu peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Drawing by Georg Schweinfurth.

The first European to visit the Mangbetu people was George Schweinfurth. In 1874, in a book called The Heart of Africa, published in several languages, he described a great meeting hall, the central building of King Mbunza’s court. By the time the Belgians came, Mbunza had died and the building had disappeared. Herbert Lang, in the area between 1910 and 1915, as the leader of the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition, asked about the building and was told that another one could be built. Lang paid the costs and construction began. A year later, five hundred men had completed this enormous meeting hall (nine meters high, fifty-five meters long and twenty-seven meters wide). Inside, it was supported by beautifully carved wooden posts. The outside, shown in the next image, was covered with intricately woven rattan.