Has Belgium’s Newly Reopened Africa Museum Exorcized the Ghosts of its Colonial Past?

Formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa, the museum was originally conceived as a showcase for King Leopold II’s personal property: the Congo Free State

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 11 DEC 18

Belgium’s Africa Museum has reopened after a five-year period of renovation and expansion that has cost EUR€74 million and doubled the museum’s exhibition space. Founded in 1898 in Tervuren, just outside of Brussels, the museum, formerly the Royal Museum for Central Africa, was originally conceived as a showcase for King Leopold II’s personal property: the Congo Free State. Today it is a public museum and the world’s foremost research institution dedicated to Central Africa, covering countries in the former Belgian Congo: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. With one of the strongest research capacities in Europe, the museum has around 80 full-time historians, anthropologists, biologists and geologists, working on projects in 20 African countries.

AfricaMuseum, Brussels. Photograph: © David Plas

The new museum comes with a new philosophy, overtly condemning colonialism as an immoral system of governance, and its permanent displays, which had been untouched since the 1950s, are now presented within a firmly anti-colonial framework. The implementation of this new vision is long overdue; its delay the result of the economic consequences of decolonization, according to the museum’s director Guideo Gryseels. In 1960, when the Republic of the Congo gained independence from Belgium, the museum, which had been part of the Ministry of the Colonies, lost most of its income. Previous directors focused on conservation, awaiting the funds to renovate the permanent collections displays.

The Crocodile Room, installation view, AfricaMuseum. Courtesy: © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

Those were made available in the early 2000s but, according to Gryseels, who has been in post since 2001, Belgium also hadn’t been ready to face its colonial past until more recently. Over the past 20 years that has changed, thanks to key events including the publication in 1998 of Adam Hochschild’s landmark book King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, which relates the full scale of colonial atrocities; and the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel’s official apology for Belgian state involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo, who was murdered in 1961. But Belgium still has a very long way to go in accepting its past: startlingly, colonial history is not taught in schools, which puts a heavy burden on the Museum to educate the 11 million Belgians on their country’s past actions.

‘Introduction gallery: A Museum in motion’, installation view, AfricaMuseum, Brussels. Courtesy: © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

The revamped museum is explicit about what is no longer acceptable: its project of rectifying the narrative starts in the first permanent collection display that visitors encounter, and continues throughout the museum. In what used to be the museum’s cellar storage, a group of sculptures epitomizing colonial aesthetics of racist stereotypes, previously installed in the central rotunda, have been unseated from their plinths and sequestered behind a white metal barrier. Among them is Paul Wissaert’s iconic L’homme-léopard (1913), which depicts an African man wearing a hooded leopardskin tunic and holding claw blades looming over a sleeping figure as though ready to pounce. Hergé appropriated the scene in his 1931 comic strip Tintin in the Congo, and the sculpture is also represented in a new painting the museum commissioned from Congolese artist Chéri Samba. In Réorganisation (2002) the leopard-man is the object of a tug-of-war on the steps of the museum between elegant Africans and slovenly whites, presided over by Gryseels. In the main museum building, the ivory bust of King Leopold II that used to greet visitors is now in a vitrine tucked in a corner, atop a ball of rubber, the commodity that, along with the millions of Congolese he enslaved for his personal profit, made him the richest man in the world.

In the reorganization, the museum’s collection has been divided into broad themes, including ‘rituals and ceremonies’, ‘languages and music’, ‘landscapes and biodiversity’, and ‘the paradox of wealth’, which tackles the question of how a region with tremendous natural resources can be so poor – one of the many legacies of colonialism. Exhibits throughout assiduously make the case against colonial-era justifications for violence and extraction, and offer insightful links between collection artefacts and contemporary Africa. This is done to great effect through first-hand video accounts of cultural concepts and practices given by people from Central Africa and members of its diasporas, presented life-size on monitors.

Aimé Mpane, New breath, or Burgeoning Congo, Nivelles, 2017, wood, bronze. Courtesy: © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

When it comes to the live issue of restitution, the museum, as many of its international counterparts, is surprisingly behind in formulating a policy. Gryseels told me: ‘I fully agree with President Macron that it is not normal that 80% of African art heritage is in Europe at the moment. We are willing to consider demands for restitution, but we have to develop a clear analytical framework for it: [to decide] what is legally acquired, [and] what is not legally acquired.’ Gryseels is concerned about the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo currently does not have a national museum, although one is currently in construction in Kinshasa – with funding from the South Korean government – and is expected to open next year, when Gryseels expects claims to start coming in. On 7 December, the day before the official reopening of the museum, Joseph Kabila, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo told the Belgian Le Soir newspaper that restitution claims are being prepared and that ‘One month before the end of building works, which is scheduled for the month of June, there will be an official request.’ The Africa Museum, which is in dialogue with scientists and curatorial colleagues in the DRC about collaborations, long-term loans and touring exhibitions, also has a working group considering the topic of restitution and hopes to have a policy ready by then.

The new Visitor’s Pavilion of the AfricaMuseum © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

The extension of the museum’s building, designed by the Belgian architect Stéphane Beel, has involved the construction of a separate entrance pavilion; a glass and steel box on stilts after the International Style, housing the reception desks, cafeteria, workshop spaces and visitor facilities. It connects to the original building via a disconcerting run of three straight flights of stairs and a 100-metre long corridor, a tunnel of stark white light and polished concrete where the sole artefact is a 22.5 metre-long pirogue that ferried King Leopold III down the Lualaba River in 1957. While the extension’s minimal style provides a visual contrast to the museum’s neoclassical palace architecture, to reproduce modernist tropes and the aesthetics of the white cube so literally also conveys an outdated form of cultural authority. Rather than serving as visible indicator of innovation, the new parts feel sterile and unsympathetic to the museum’s themes and holdings.

Freddy Tsimba, Ombres (Shadows), 2016. Courtesy: collection RMCA © RMCA, Tervuren; photograph: Jo Van de Vijver

The 1897 Brussels World’s Fair included a colonial section on the site, showcasing the Congo Free State. As part of the display, three African villages populated by 267 imported Congolese people were exhibited to the paying public. Seven of the villagers died during their time in Belgium; their names, along with the dates and places of their deaths have now been inscribed on the windows of a museum corridor for Shadows (2108), a poignant work by Freddy Tsimba. When the sun shines, they fall on the wall beneath a memorial listing the 1,508 Belgians who died in the Congo Free State between 1876 and 1908.

Tsimba’s Shadows is as subtle as the Belgian colonial memorial is pompous. This devastating contrast between the two lists hints at how daunting the task of responding to histories of colonialism can be. The Africa Museum has come far: it has achieved its primary goal of repositioning its collections within a radically transformed narrative, while it continues to conduct important new research across Central Africa in collaboration with African colleagues. But there’s a long way to go before it – or any other museum – can be considered properly decolonized. What it has achieved so far is a mere whisper in the face of a deafening history.

Main image: Chéri Samba, Réorganisation (detail), 2002. Courtesy: Collection RMCA

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.