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.
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.
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.
Until recently, there was only limited awareness in Belgium of the country’s colonial history, and particularly of the events under the Congo Free State, and there has been only limited public interest in engaging critically with that subject, in a way that is perhaps best understood as collective denial, a collective refusal to regard Belgium as being on the “wrong side” of history. When I grew up, we were taught little or nothing about it and the salient issues are still not on the curriculum. Our history classes on our country’s role in Central Africa focused on how King Leopold II of Belgium, which was then still a new state, had acquired the Congo as a means of asserting Belgium’s political and economic interests among world powers. There was however no acknowledgement of the atrocities that took place during the Congo Free State or during the later independence struggles, or of the oppressive regime of apartheid and forced work that prevailed during the Belgian colonial era, and there was certainly no recognition of the legacy of social and political instability Belgian colonialism left behind in those areas. What was discussed, in our geography classes, were Central Africa’s mineral and agricultural riches (to which we were somehow entitled, it was implied, as these were needed for our industries and economic growth), and some of its cultural practices, in which “the natives” were basically represented as childlike “savages” who needed to be brought into civilization by means of Christianity and education. The overall message was that there may have been some initial “management problems” under Leopold II but that all was well after Congo became a Belgian colony and that colonialism was a benevolent and necessary intervention, which was as much in the best interests of the Central African peoples as it has been of Belgium. This is, unfortunately, still the view of many in Belgium today.
Leopold II has been conventionally represented in Belgium as an essentially benign eccentric and visionary, who left a legacy of major and beneficial infrastructural developments and who put “little Belgium” on the international map, and not as a ruthless colonial exploiter who oversaw and profited from one of the great genocides of the modern era. There is hardly a city or town in Belgium which does not have a major street or square named after him, and statues abound, and none of these seem to attract much critical attention or protest (although there have been a few minor instances recently). The Belgian State and the Belgian Royal House have, to this date, not apologized for Belgium’s colonial history, or taken any responsibility for its troubled aftermath, such as the present-day ethnic strife and political instability. The present Belgian King Phillipe tellingly declined to attend the re-opening of the AfricaMuseum, taking the position that it would not be appropriate for the Royal House to be part of the present discussions on the subject. It is a troubled history with which Belgium has only just began to engage, and only hesitantly so, with new initiatives such as a documentary series on the national television station VRT last year and with the AfricaMuseum.
My own awareness of these histories, admittedly, dates mainly from after I moved to Jamaica in 1984. My eyes were certainly opened when I read Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), which details the atrocities in the Congo Free State (and the campaign against it), and viewed the film Lumumba (2000) by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, which narrates the events around the 1961 assassination of independent Congo’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, an assassination in which Belgian interests obviously played a role. But I grew up with a popular imaginary of the Congo, and of Africa and Africans, that was, looking back, extremely racist and reductive, but uncritically consumed and reproduced by most Belgians. This is perhaps best illustrated by the popular comic strip Tintin in the Congo, a lurid adventure tale in which the young Belgian journalist-detective Tintin rolls up a diamond smuggling ring and, of course, becomes a local hero. The book was originally published in 1931 and has been widely distributed and acclaimed as a classic of Belgium’s comic strip culture. I read it too and owned a copy. I am deeply embarrassed by it now, and understand fully why it is so offensive to black people anywhere, but it was part of the Belgian popular culture I grew up with as a child, and I did not question it at that time. Although the book has now become rightly controversial for its racist content (and its casual depictions of animal cruelty), it remains popular and older editions are sought-after collectibles. Obviously, a lot of work still needs to be done to unpack and critique such representations, and to make many Belgians understand (and care for) why such images and narratives are racist and unacceptable. And this is one of the reasons why the reorganization of the AfricaMuseum is an important initiative, in the Belgian context, as museums can play an important role in generating awareness of, and reshaping such imaginaries.
When I visited the renovated AfricaMuseum it was packed with visitors, to the point where it was difficult to see and interact with some of the exhibits. It also appeared that parts of the museum were not fully ready, with much of the interactive technology not working and some display cases empty — the technical growing pains of a just-renovated museum that was overwhelmed with visitors, no doubt. The period between Christmas and New Year, when schools are on vacation and many working people take a few days off, is the busy season for family trips, to museums and other attractions, and the local and international media attention given to the reopening must also have contributed. I cannot say that I saw all of the exhibits, or that I saw what I did manage to see under the best of circumstances, which makes it difficult to present any detailed review of the exhibitions. It was however encouraging to observe the turnout, as this suggests that there is in fact public interest in what the renovated museum has to offer. When I had last visited the museum, about ten-fifteen years ago, it seemed moribund and of interest only to specialist audiences.
The visit to the renovated museum starts in a new Visitors Centre a few hundred yards away from the main museum building. This glass pavilion houses ticket sales, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a locker room, and visitors are then ushered to the main museum building via an underground passage which features a very long, slender dugout canoe, carved from a single tree trunk, which was also one of the most popular and memorable exhibits in the old museum. It is a beautiful, exquisitely crafted and dramatic object that easily commands the otherwise near-empty space and it is, appropriately, loaded with symbolic allusions, to travel, culture, technology, geography, history, and transience. On the wall besides it, there is a simple text, made from mirrored letters, which reads, in Dutch, French, German and English (the four languages used for all the museum texts): “Everything passes, except for the past” — a subtle invitation for visitors to reflect on the histories represented by the museum and their own relationship with these histories.
Visitors are then led into an introductory exhibition in the basement of the museum building, which focuses on the history and work of the AfricaMuseum, which also serves as a major research center on Central Africa. It is one of the most cramped and crowded parts of the museum, and therefore a bit hard to take in, but a few things stood out. One was a sign on the wall which stated that the AfricaMuseum holds its collections as part of the shared heritage of humanity (I did not record the exact wording). Noble as it may sound, this is not an innocent statement, as we have regularly heard the self-justifying argument recently, that major Western museums, faced with restitution requests, hold on to their collections on behalf of, and it is implied, in the best interests of, a universal humanity — I will pay more attention to this questionable argument in a forthcoming post on the restitution debate.
The other noteworthy element of the introductory display was a storage-area type grouping of sculptures of “ethnic types” and “cultural practices,” most of which were previously on view in the main rotunda of the museum and which had been commissioned by the then Ministry of Colonies from the artist Paul Wissaert and acquired by the museum in 1913. As Gryseels told the New York Times, by placing these racist statues in a side room of the basement, the museum is distancing itself from its past without denying it. The question is, of course, whether visitors perceive it that way, since the most controversial sculpture of the group, the so-called Leopard Man, certainly still attracts a lot of attention from visitors, and from what I could see, especially the younger ones (the sculpture actually inspired one of the characters in Tintin in the Congo). There are text panels that provide a critical context to the sculptures, and explain the manner in which they are now presented, but the most pointed intervention is made by a painting by Chéri Samba that hangs somewhat inconspicuously behind the display of sculptures.
Samba (b1956), who lives in Kinshasa and Paris, is known for his colourful, quasi-naive but trenchant comments on African affairs. His painting, which was commissioned by the museum when the renovation campaign started, satirizes the ideological battles that surround the museum, which he represents as a physical tug of war, set on the steps of the museum, between a group of black Africans who are trying to move the Leopard Man out of the building, and a group of white Europeans, including a grotesquely depicted bald, pot-bellied man, who are trying to keep it in. The elegantly suited museum director and the museum’s famous stuffed elephant (or is it the sculpture of a giant elephant in front of the museum?) look on with what appears to be detachment, although the positioning of the director figure in the composition subtly suggests that he is not entirely neutral. In the multilingual text in the painting, Samba argues that the museum needs a complete reorganization.
The new permanent exhibitions occupy most of the museum space, although there was also an exhibition of selections from the museum’s traditional art collection and a number of commissioned interventions by contemporary artists from Central Africa. One of these is a giant large wood and bronze sculpture, titled New Breath, or Burgeoning Congo, by Aimé Mpane (b.1968), a Kinshasa-born artist who is well-known for his work on the legacies of colonialism in Africa, which has been centrally placed in the central rotunda, where it pointed confronts the old gilded sculptures, in their original niches, that glorified Belgium’s colonial intervention as well as, in the floor pattern, the star symbol of the Congo Free State (all of which, the museum has indicated, could not be moved as they are part of the building and thus have protected heritage status). The permanent galleries are organized according to big themes: ritual and key life events; languages; music; history; natural history and the environment; economy; and contemporary daily life, although the latter is referenced in most of the galleries.
A lot of technology is used, in terms of audiovisual and interactive elements that allow visitors to explore certain topics more thoroughly, and the dialogue between these and the more traditional artifact displays are dramatic and engaging, bringing them to life. The section on ritual and key life events, for instance, includes large flat-screens in which men and women from Central Africa, and of different ages and backgrounds, explain how these matters are dealt with in their communities today. The exhibitions also include paintings by well-known Congolese artists that comment on various aspects of African life and politics, so there is at least an effort to bring in diverse African voices and viewpoints.
Labels, text panels and interactive stations serve to provide context, as one would expect, and are generally “politically correct” and devoid of potentially offensive vocabulary and assertions (and they were peer-reviewed for that purpose), but the language seems tentative and searching, to the point of being tortuous, in some sections. The exhibition on ritual, for instance, includes a sign in which the museum apologizes for its historical role in the removal of sacred objects from their context – an important admission, no doubt, but one which is not accompanied by any statement about how such historical injustices might be redressed today.
There was one element in the natural history display that I found frankly disturbing, namely a cabinet display on the evolution from “knuckle-walking” great ape to human, with actual skeletons, and a reconstructed hand for each specimen. The hand for the human specimen was white, and the other two were black and brown, which could be construed as a most unfortunate reassertion of scientific racism. If there was anything to put this problematic representation in context, I did not see it and this suggests that there are still some major, and surprising, ideological blind spots. I was also concerned about the low-keyed attention given to the history of the human zoos, even though this was an integral part of the museum’s own history (and there was a human zoo at the 1958 Brussels World Exhibition too, so this is not part of some long-ago history). There is an intervention titled Shadows by Freddy Tsimba (b1967), a Kinshasa-based artist, which projects the names of the Congolese people who died as a result of their forced participation in the 1897 human zoo, on the glass windows in an area where Belgians who died in the Congo are memorialized. Haunting as it is, the intervention is in a low-traffic part of the museum and so visually subtle that it is probably missed by many visitors. Other than that, the only other reference I have seen is a rather marginal section of a documentary display and timeline on the Congolese presence in Belgium, a documentary display which furthermore seemed hastily put together and which does not measure up to the high curatorial and design standards of the rest of the museum.
Intriguing as they are, I believe that most of the museum’s critical engagement strategies are too vague and open to contrary interpretations to be effective, with insufficient guidance provided to visitors. On leaving the museum, for instance, I spent some time observing the response to another intervention by Freddy Tsimba, an outdoor installation. The installation consists of a group of headless, nude black figures, wrought from metal, which are leaning with arms and legs splayed against the wall of one of the buildings that adjoin the museum. It would seem obvious that this installation refers critically to the histories and present-day issues of violence, objectification and abuse, but two young, white women were playfully interacting with it, photographing each other while mimicking the pose of the figures. Clearly, they were oblivious, or indifferent, to the installation’s significance and merely treated it as a fun social media photo-op.
I made an effort throughout my visit to observe visitors and their responses to the exhibitions. The visitorship was in fact quite diverse: the majority was white, and presumably Belgian (Flemish and Francophone), but there were also quite a few black visitors, most of whom were presumably Belgians of Central African descent, as well as persons of other ethnic, racial and national backgrounds. While most visitors seemed genuinely and respectfully engaged, and eager to peruse the many interactive elements (although not all of these worked), I noted a few standout responses. One was a white, Flemish-speaking man who stated loudly, on exiting the gallery dedicated to ritual and daily life, that he felt superior. Another noteworthy response came a group of African-American visitors, dressed in Afrocentric clothes, who loudly commented that the items on display had been stolen and needed to be returned immediately. That both found it necessary to make provocative, quasi-public statements suggests that it was their position on the debates of the moment that motivated their visit to the museum and that they came to make that point.
This does not mean that all visitors knowingly or willingly participate in these debates. It may have been a subjective, conjectural observation, but it appeared to me that there was almost a collective sigh of relief when visitors left the gallery that dealt with the Congo Free State history and entered the sections dedicated to natural history, which are also among the most well-designed, visually enchanting parts of the museum — there was a sense that visitors could now finally “enjoy” the exhibits instead of being “burdened” with the unpleasant details of colonial history. It would be a big mistake, of course, to think that these parts of the museum do not come with their own ideological baggage, as these exhibitions, too, relate to the histories of human and economic exploitation and environmental degradation, as well as the problematic manner in which Africa has been represented as “closer to nature.” While these issues are acknowledged in the text panels and interactive stations, I was left to question the extent to which visitors are encouraged to actually engage with these questions, and the many opportunities they are being offered to avoid doing so.
Ebony G. Patterson, in interviews about her exhibition at the Perez Art Museum, has spoken about her use of beauty to lure in viewers and to confront them with the serious political messages that are encoded within the visual opulence of her work. When successfully done, this is indeed a powerful and effective engagement strategy, but it can also have the opposite effect, whereby the beauty and wonder become the main attractions, and distract and even detract from the issues at hand. The AfricaMuseum arguably does a great job with celebrating African culture and nature, and with emphasizing the cultural diversity and with making contemporary life a central part of the discussion, and this is done with what are, for the most part, visually beautiful and engaging displays. That is in itself important and necessary, as a way to challenge the negative and simplistic manner in which many Belgians, and many other Europeans, have imagined Africa. But the question arises whether the celebratory beauty and spectacle of some of the exhibitions allows visitors to circumvent and ignore the ugly histories of violence and exploitation and to indulge in a “feel good” experience, with more than a bit of uncritical exoticism, instead of confronting them actively with these issues.
It is deemed good practice in the world of museums not to be overly prescriptive and to provide visitors with the tools to articulate their own interpretations, thus serving as a forum for diverse views. It appears that this is the approach the AfricaMuseum has taken, with its rather subtle interventions and prompts. These interventions may be easily understood, contextualized and critiqued by those already “in the know” — museum professionals, cultural activists and other stakeholders who are already invested in the debates — but they may be too cautious, too academic and too open-ended to encourage the “average visitor” to do the same, which is an important concern given the ignorance and resistance that still surrounds the issues at hand in Belgium today. The AfricaMuseum was originally established as part of a colonial propaganda effort, and to undo this legacy, a more assertive and declarative museology is arguably needed, which challenges visitors more actively and provocatively to confront and question this history and its present-day implications.
As the earlier-mentioned painting by Chéri Samba illustrates, the critical response to the renovation started years before the reopening and actually helped to prompt the renovation. Not surprisingly, this response has come mainly from the (Central) African diaspora in Belgium, which is, or should be, its most crucial stakeholder group. The consensus among its cultural activists appears to be that the museum did not go far enough in addressing the issues in its renovation and is involved in glib cultural diplomacy rather than any effective cultural-political intervention. There are also strong views that the museum has failed to give the diaspora an active, empowered and duly compensated voice in the renovation and the reinterpretation of its collections. The museum certainly has a long way to go with diversifying its staff, at all levels.
An article on Politico, a political news site, provides a useful overview of the critical concerns, of which I am citing highlights here: Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, founder of the Afro-Belgian organization BAMKO, laments that the museum is “willing to hear what we have to say, but we don’t have any decision-making power.” The Belgian-Rwandan artist and architect Laura Nsengiyumva expresses similar sentiments and it is certainly telling that her proposal for a performance that involved melting an ice-sculpture of Leopold II was turned down by the museum because, she was told, it was not suitable for an ethnographic museum. Clearly, the museum is not (as yet) prepared to tackle its most controversial foundations and associations head-on. Adam Hochschild comments, “History museums, like anything else, reflect power dynamics in the society they’re in […] No country does a decent job of dealing in museums or public spaces with really painful or difficult periods of its past unless it’s really pushed to do so.” And the pressure to do so is certainly mounting for Belgium.
Imperfect as it is the renovated AfricaMuseum represents an important step in the Belgian context, where there is still an enormous amount of terrain to cover when it comes to owning up to the country’s history of colonialism and deeply entrenched racism. There need to be many more such steps, and bolder, more courageous and more inclusive ones, within the museum and in the broader public sphere, if there is to be any hope for meaningful change. As Laura Nsengiyumva has said, “[u]ntil there are no more colonial statues in our streets, or even until there’s a monument dedicated to the victims of colonization, we won’t have made any real progress.”