The Elephant in the Museum

_20190114_121833
Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

crowded museum
A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

Tervuren RMCA entrance.JPG
The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »