The Elephant in the Museum

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 »

When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post. Read More »

Roaming Photographically through my Family History

My mother, Maria Roose, passed away recently, on July 22, 2018. Since my father’s death in 1989, she had lived alone in our hometown of Bruges, Belgium, surrounded by a mix of family heirlooms and newer things, and she lived an active and fiercely independent life, driving until very recently. We are still in shock at how quickly things changed and how sudden her death was, a mere three weeks after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with rapidly escalating health problems. She was 87 years old.

One of the inevitable tasks after the death of one’s parents is having to sort through their personal belongings and to clear out the house. Such work is always emotionally taxing and in our case, it has also been a physically demanding task, not yet completed at the time of writing, for my mother was not one to throw away things. Perhaps it was the experience of having lived through World War II as a teenager, when there were critical shortages of all sorts of goods and supplies we now take for granted but her insistence on keeping still-usable things also led to instructive and at times hilarious finds.

One was my mother’s “shoe collection,” which surely rivaled Imelda Marcos’s, at least when it came to numbers. Another was her substantial hoard of clothes, many of them hardly worn, which provided us with a “history of fashion” object lesson from the 1950s to the present (she had even kept the striped dress she wore when she first met my father at a ball in 1955, which had a lovely petticoat design). My mother was a beautiful woman and she took her appearance seriously. And then there were ample supplies of candles of all sizes, colours and types and of Christmas- and birthday-themed paper table napkins, as well as dozens of board and card games and children’s toys, many old children’s drawings, and an impressive collection of empty (and near-empty) cookie tins—an archaeology of her life as a devoted mother and grandmother.Read More »

Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part I


This is the first of a two-part post. The second part, which takes the issues to the Caribbean and Jamaica, can be found here.

Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.  –  Hans Haacke

I grew up going to museums, and to art museums in particular. I was born in Bruges, Belgium, and it is often said that this city is a museum in itself. Its well-preserved late medieval city centre is an accident of history: Bruges’ harbour silted up rapidly after the 15th century and the subsequent economic decline resulted in a lack of the sort of new building activity that later transformed the face of other Flemish cities such as Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. Bruges was in its heyday a centre for what we now call Early Flemish painting, with artists such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling in residence and patronized by Bruges’ wealthy merchants. Bruges is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist site, which attracts some 9 million tourists per year, which is remarkable when compared to its population of about 120,000 in the town centre (and a total of 250,000 if the greater metropolitan area is included.)

Jan van Eyck – The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Groeninge Museum, Bruges

I am aware of some 26 museums in Bruges and environs, big and small, and public and private, and several of these have significant art holdings. The best-known of these is the Groeninge museum, which is the main municipal art museum and which exhibits the work of Flemish and other artists from what is now Belgium, from the 14th to the 20st century. It features such well-known works of art as van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436) and Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439) and The Death of the Virgin (c1472-1480) by Hugo van der Goes, along with modern works by artists such as James Ensor, Rene Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Raveel and many others.

When I was growing up, my immediate family was not professionally involved in art or museums (I had a great-grand uncle, Camille Poupeye, who was a fairly well-known theatre and art critic but he was elderly and lived in Brussels and he was not part of our daily experience). Museum visits were however a fairly regular part of our family outings, as appears to have been the norm for most families in our social cohort. Bruges’ municipal museums had (and I believe still have) free admission for local residents on Sundays, which was of course an incentive to visit, and we also visited the local museums with school. We also traveled quite a bit within Europe and museum visits were invariably a major part of that. One of my earliest museum recollections outside of Bruges was a visit to the Louvre in Paris. I must have been about 10 years old at that time (which would place that visit in the tumultuous year of the 1968 student uprising and I remember seeing heavily armed police officers with riot shields and my mother explaining that it had something to do with the students at the Sorbonne).

Medici Cycle
Pieter Paul Rubens – Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25), Richelieu Wing, Louvre Museum, Paris

The Egyptian mummies at the Louvre would haunt my dreams for months to come, and not in a good way, and strolling around in that very large museum was in itself a challenge for my young body. I remember vividly how much my shoulders were hurting after walking around for several hours and that I was actually crying, having just had my fill of my first Louvre experience. But my mother would have none of it and she was adamant that we were going to see Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25) before we left because, as she put it, we were Flemish and had to see the work of Flemish artists. I hated Rubens for a long time. Subsequent museum visits were not so traumatic and we saw many of Europe’s major museums during our vacations. Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was particularly memorable to me and I was mesmerized by the Botticellis there – an experience which contributed actively to my decision to study art history and to make a career in museums.

Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus (1484–1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My family was average middle class, a large family (according to Belgian norms) with five children and no money, and we were not particularly involved in the art world. We had some art works on our walls, but these were family heirlooms, that shared wall space with family photographs and a small, cheap copy of the Mona Lisa – a souvenir of one of our Paris trips. We did not buy art, nor did we go to exhibition previews and I don’t think my family knew any professional artists. The only art event I ever attended while growing up was a special viewing of an exhibition of the Anonieme Vlaamse Primitieven (Anonymous Early Flemish Painters) exhibition at the Groeninge in 1969, to which my family was somehow invited (I don’t remember why exactly but it was some special initiative).Read More »