Belgian museum on Africa reopens after 10-year effort to exorcise the ghosts of colonialism
July 14, 2020
For more than a century, Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has stood as a monument to the worst excesses of colonial plunder.
After a ten-year “decolonisation” project, the renovated museum will open to visitors for the first time in five years on Sunday and Belgium will finally take a step towards confronting its brutal history in the Congo.
King Leopold II of the Belgians ruled the Congo Free State as an absolute monarch, pillaging the region of lucrative rubber and minerals and overseeing a genocide that left, according to some estimates, as many as 15 million dead.
Packed to the brim with more than 180,000 looted items, including the beheaded skulls of vanquished tribal chiefs, and more than 500 stuffed animals slaughtered by hunters, the museum celebrated the exploits of the Belgians who turned a huge swathe of Africa into a slave state.
The £67 million reopening of the palatial 1910 building in the leafy Brussels suburb of Tervuren was supposed to shift the emphasis, with African artists invited to display their work in an effort to modernise and detoxify the museum built by Leopold.
But the reopening risked being overshadowed when Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on Friday night called for the repatriation of its artefacts. The museum said it would consider the request.
Mr Kabila, whose demand follows Emmanuel Macron’s promise to return colonial-era African artefacts, told the Le Soir newspaper he wanted art and documents for a museum in the DRC, which is being built with the South Korean government.
Guido Gryseels, the museum director, has been on a decade-long quest to move the focus of the museum away from celebrating Leopold’s ruthless exploitation of the region.
The king’s brutal regime, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, lasted from 1885 to 1908 before, under huge international pressure, the Belgian government took the region out of royal hands, and renamed it the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo, which includes the entirety of the present day Democratic Republic of Congo, gained independence in 1960.
“The museum was frozen in time for many years. When I took over 17 years ago, the permanent exhibition hadn’t changed since the 1950s . That made us the last colonial museum in the world,” Mr Gryseels told The Brussels Times.
“We were essentially a propaganda institution for the government’s colonial policy,” he added.
He admits there are some Belgians who are “disappointed” with the new critical view of the colonial past, which they prefer to see as Christianising and benign.
Despite the extreme cruelty of the occupation, which became infamous for the practice of cutting off hands as punishment for failure to hit impossible rubber quotas, statues of Leopold II and colonial monuments dot the parks of Brussels. Streets are named after the likes of Henry Stanley, the British explorer Leopold hired as his agent in Africa.
In a sign of continued sensitivity over the issue, King Philippe did not attend Saturday’s ceremonial opening. A palace official said the monarch only attended events where there was “consensus”.
The work of a Congolese artist is given pride of place in the new museum as it strives to present a more contemporary view of Africa. Offensive statues from the old museum are displayed in a windowless room.
But it is impossible to totally exorcise the ghost of Leopold. The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.
Among the most popular exhibits, witnessed by more than a million Belgians, was a human zoo of 267 Congolese people. A plaque has finally been erected memorialising the seven Congolese who died from exposure after being forced to wear traditional clothing.