How the new AfricaMuseum is helping Belgium address its colonial past

“They called us the world’s last colonial museum,” says Guido Gryseels. 

He is director-general of what is now the AfricaMuseum, the reincarnation of the Royal Museum of Central Africa which closed on 1 December 2013 for refurbishment – and a complete change of philosophy.

The “Palace of the Colonies,” as it was called upon opening in 1910, was funded by Belgian exploitation of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and occupies a glorious location in wooded parkland east of Brussels. 

No glory, though, surrounds the colonial adventures of Belgium and its murderous monarch, Leopold II.

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For Africa, colonisation was a catastrophe. As European nations plundered her people for slavery and her lands for wealth, they tore a great continent apart – creating divisions and conflict which still burn today.

Leopold II of Belgium, second cousin of Queen Victoria, was the worst offender. In 1885 the Belgian king cut out the heart of Africa – the vast Congo basin – and made it his personal fiefdom as the “Congo Free State”. It was 80 times bigger than Belgium, with a far larger population.

Enslavement, disease and murder on an industrial scale took the lives of millions of Africans. Leopold II died a year before the museum opened, and his private colony became the Belgian Congo, which gained independence only in 1960.

Even then the museum continued to extol Belgium for bringing “civilisation”, “security” and “well-being” to the Congo, and continued to depict Africans as savages.

“The image of Africa that we were conveying was based on a perception of Africa from the Belgian perspective, pre-decolonisation,” says Mr Gryseels.

“Instead we want to focus on Africa in the present and future, without overlooking the shared history of Belgium and the Central African countries.”

As with Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the Hague’s Mauritshuis in the neighbouring Netherlands, extra space has been created by digging down.

Visitors enter via a new glass pavilion, just to the west of the palace, then descend to a tunnel. It is also an underground gallery, whose central element is a pirogue – a 74-foot, three-ton wooden canoe. It was put in place nearly three years ago, and the rest of the gallery built around it.

In the basement of the palace, an introductory exhibition looks at the past, present and future of an institution that was set up as a marketing exercise aimed at the Belgian people – but is now part of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Once on ground level, much has been preserved: the parquet floor, elegant ironwork and marbled halls have been painstakingly restored as part of the €66m (£60m) project.

Many of the exhibits remain the same, too, such as the giant map charting 19th-century “fundamental geographical discoveries” by European colonisers. 

Presenting a decolonised perspective of Africa in a building which was designed to do exactly the opposite is a tough call – partly addressed by contemporary art.

Congolese artists in Africa and Belgium were invited to contribute works to counter the colonial-era statues. The Great Rotunda is now dominated by Aimé Mpané’s Nouveau souffle ou le Congo bourgeonnant: the chiselled wooden head of an African man on a pedestal of what appears to be molten bronze. 

The reopening has been accompanied by calls for the many artefacts brought from Central Africa to be returned to the DRC; a new national museum is due to open in the capital, Kinshasa, next year.

To address such controversies, the museum has created the post of journalist-in-residence. The first was Denise Maheho from Radio Okapi in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi. She says: “It was a great experience to listen to discussions on, for instance, the decolonisation of the museum, or the restitution or sharing of ethnographic objects kept in museums.”

In the museum’s original guise, the only deaths commemorated were of 1,500 Belgians who died in Africa. Now the memorial wall for them has become a site of remembrance for the first Congolese who were brought to Belgium and died there – with their names projected on the wall of the gallery.

A large part of the museum’s original appeal was its collection of stuffed wildlife, and many of the poor creatures have been brought back in, two by two – with a giant elephant dominating the menagerie of dead animals.

Previously, an idealised vision of “natural Africa” was presented with no sign of human intervention, but now there is plenty on the many threats posed by man and climate change to a part of the world that is fragile in all senses.

DRC is still in disarray, with the reemergence of the deadly ebola virus, rampant criminality in the east of the country and politics in turmoil in the capital. 

The Foreign Office is warning prospective British visitors not to visit large parts of the former Congo Free State: 

“The political and security situation remains uncertain,” says the latest travel advice for DRC. “There have been continued calls for general strikes (‘ville morte’), civil disobedience and public protests.

“In the event of serious unrest, commercial flights may be suspended, roads blocked and borders closed, making it difficult to leave the country. Internet connections and mobile phone networks may have reduced services or be cut off.”

But the AfricaMuseum’s director-general, Guido Gryseels, is optimistic about the prospects of the continent he portrays: “In 30 years from now, 40 per cent of the world’s population will live in Africa.

“Africa is the continent of the future.”

Travel essentials

Getting there

To reach the AfricaMuseum, a direct bus, number 830, runs from Brussels airport to the village of Tervuren, where it is located, in about 40 minutes.

From the Eurostar rail terminal at Brussels Midi, take any train to Brussels Central then the underground line 1 direction Stockel, and alight at Montgomery. Stay below street level and catch tram 44 to its terminus at Tervuren – a journey of 22 minutes. A single €2.10 ticket should cover the entire trip.

More information

The AfricaMuseum opens 11am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 10am-6pm at weekends, admission €12.

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