Brussels Africa Museum confronts its colonial past
Museum for Central Africa (RMCA)
3080 Tervuren - Belgium
read also : The Memory of Congo: the Colonial Era and Congo: Nature
The Royal Museum of Central Africa in the suburb of Tervuren near Brussels. Commissioned by King Leopold
II, it is the world's largest display of African art. Such was the king's fascination with Africa
that, in 1897, he shipped in 267 bewildered Congolese tribesmen to live for a year in mock villages in the Royal Park as part of a world fair display. Now tropical plants are the only living
At the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, a controversial
exhibition examines the country's role in Congo.
March 13, 2005 found at latimes.com
Generations of Belgian schoolchildren have tramped past glass-topped cases of
insects at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, a few miles southeast of
Brussels. Now this moldering dowager, created by Belgian King Leopold II around
the turn of the last century, is one of the most fascinating museums in Europe,
with a controversial new exhibition on the Belgian colonial era in Congo.
A vast repository of cultural and scientific specimens, it has long been
considered by scholars the premiere collection of Central Africana in the world,
easily surpassing that at the British Museum in London and the National Museum
of African Art, part of the Smithsonian in Washington. But it isn't the Royal
Museum's 6 million insects or 8,000 musical instruments that make it compelling.
Rather, it's the way the institution has become a flashpoint for the controversy
over Belgium's role in the colonizing of Central Africa from about 1885 to 1960.
Frozen in time, paint peeling off the walls, brandishing the banner of the
forward march of European civilization, the museum was — and, in some ways,
still is — a study in political incorrectness. When I first visited it two
years ago, I was intrigued and appalled by gilded bronze statues in the foyer
depicting valiant Mother Belgium eradicating savagery in Africa. A "Gallery
of Remembrance" honored Belgian colonists who gave their lives there, with
no mention of the millions of indigenous people who died during the often brutal
Consummate works of African art were displayed chiefly as anthropological
artifacts. "The people of the Congo [were depicted] on the same level as
fauna and flora," Belgian historian Ludo de Witte, author of "The
Assassination of Lumumba," said in a telephone interview.
In 2001, the museum hired Guido Gryseels as its new director. He plans to remake
the museum into a digitally connected research foundation by 2010, funding
scientific expeditions and supporting African cultural institutions.
Gryseels has responded to the controversy over Belgium's role in Central Africa
with "Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era," an exhibit scheduled to last
until Oct. 9. "We cannot avoid answering these questions," he told the
Guardian of London in a 2002 story. "Everyone raises [the issue] all the
time, and we don't know what to say."
Criticism of Belgium's strong-arm extraction of profit from its Central African
colony, the private domain of King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908, began around
the turn of the last century. Humanitarians, including crusading journalist
Edmund Morel of Britain, began to report on forced labor and summary executions
of natives. Then came publication of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella "Heart of
Darkness," based on the author's stint in Congo in 1890.
Mounting criticism, especially of the king's lucrative rubber-collecting
enterprise, which depended on slave labor, forced Leopold II to relinquish
personal proprietorship of Congo. In 1908 it became a colony of the Belgian
state, and forced labor was officially abolished. After that, Belgians —
inspired by government public relations campaigns and school field trips to the
museum — came to accept the notion that Congo was a model colony. This
misapprehension endured even after Congo gained independence in 1960.
The controversy reignited in 1999 with the publication of "King Leopold's
Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa," by
American writer Adam Hochschild. In it, the author blamed the Belgian colonial
system for, among other things, a population loss of 10 million in Congo because
of forced labor, famine, disease and the diminished birth rate resulting from
The museum has come to represent the worst abuses of Belgian colonialism in
Africa, though in touring Brussels, visitors can see other vestiges of Congo's
plundering. Ivory, rubber, copper, diamonds and gold from the Central African
nation, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, funded the construction of
the broad Parc du Cinquantenaire and the colossal neoclassic Palais de Justice.
And everywhere in the Belgian capital there are statues of King Leopold II,
whose stated purpose in Congo was to "bring civilization to the only part
of our globe it hasn't yet penetrated." Along the way, the king, who died
in 1909, reaped a profit from the colony of an estimated $1.1 billion.
As with all complex matters, a little historical background enriches the
experience of visiting the new exhibition. Belgium is celebrating its 175th
anniversary this year. Since its founding in 1830, it has become an influential
force in Europe, the seat of the European Union and more ethnically mixed.
Brussels has an African neighborhood near the Porte de Namur, galleries full of
African art and a lively African immigrant population.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, not all has been calm; in the civil war
after the 1997 departure of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, 3.3 million people have
been killed. Observers from humanitarian organizations fear hostilities are
starting again, with incursions from neighboring states such as Rwanda.
With these underpinnings, "Memory of Congo" is a big, intense
exhibition. It tells the story of Belgium's colonial venture, from the Berlin
Conference of 1884-1885, when European leaders carved colonies from the map of
Africa and Leopold II took possession of what he called the "Congo Free
State," to Mobutu's misrule, which coexisted with an effort to turn the
ailing former colony into the authentically African state of Zaire.
Along the way, the exhibition highlights the benefits of colonial rule — when
Congo became independent, it enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Africa
— and abuses, such as forced labor, the political disenfranchisement of the
Congolese people and the population decline, which some observers have compared
to the Holocaust.
With no reliable statistics, population loss in Congo during the colonial phase
is a deeply sensitive issue. The exhibition contests high estimates such as
Hochschild's 10 million, suggesting instead a 20% decline, or about 4 million
In an e-mail interview, Hochschild, who hasn't yet seen the exhibition, objected
to the 20% figure. "For the museum to say, as it does in the selection of
texts [a handout that accompanies the exhibition], that 'a scientific consensus
has been reached' is fraudulent," he wrote. "There is no consensus on
this point at all, and few, if any, historians outside of Belgium would accept
such a figure."
Arguing over demographic decline in colonial Congo strikes Belgian-born Jan
Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of
Wisconsin, as futile. "I don't think [the dispute is] all that
important," said Vansina, who contributed an essay to the book that
accompanies the exhibition. But, as he told me in a telephone interview, he was
astounded by this assertion in the selection of texts: "The context of
Congo's atrocities is one of a period of extreme violence in world history. We
know that, within such contexts, the line between human dignity and barbarity is
frequently crossed. History also tells us that this line is never crossed in one
"The last sentence is really too much for me," said Vansina.
"They are blaming the victim.
"This exhibition seems to have succeeded in, at least, convincing many
people that there were abuses, which only a few months ago few Belgians would
admit. But in an ideal world, [the message] has not sufficiently
Visitors must decide how fairly the exhibition examines the question of abuses
in Congo and, by extension, how the museum has set about becoming a place of
investigation, as opposed to a symbol of Belgian colonialism. Therein lies its
compelling interest and challenge.
* Royal Museum
Royal Museum for Central Africa, 13 Leuvensesteenweg, Tervuren 3080, Belgium;
read also :Musée royal de
l'afrique centrale - The Memory of Congo: the Colonial Era and Congo: Nature
African masks from Known Collections
African Art Collectors,
Discover the African
Art books I like or join me on
Antiques is the archive and not growing much anymore but still updated.
Art to join our free newsletter and read recent African Art News.
For the last news about africa museum you should join our African
Art Club and become an insider of the African art market.
And if you are a collector of African Art,
have a look at our exclusive African
Art Collection for sale.
Call us at +32 3 227 35 40
african art | home
| african art shop
Joris Visser Tribal art
Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
more African Art books I like