Belgium seeks to redress colonial past with new opening of Africa Museum
The Africa Museum on the outskirts of Brussels originally opened 120 years ago to showcase their colony in the Congo. After five years of renovation and more of re-thinking, the museum opened this weekend and now redresses its history full-on and uses its past exhibits to tell a new story
A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver
The Africa Museum re-opened this weekend after an $84 million renovation, taking over five years. The museum has an interesting history - in the past it was known as the 'last colonial museum' - and was opened 120 years by Leopold II to show off Belgium’s prowess in its only colony, the Congo. Belgium’s colonial past record is not widely known, and it is not good. It is estimated that millions of Congolese were murdered by Leopold II in his drive for profits, and so the Director of the Africa Museum, Guido Gryseels, realised that he has a hard task in changing people’s perception of the museum and what it first represented.
He plans to do this in a number of ways, including showing a critical view of Belgium's colonial past, the collections in a new physical and mental setting and including a permanent exhibition that stays related to a contemporary central Africa. He wants to use the museum as a forum for debate while taking responsibility for the past. Gryseels is also keen to actively involve people from the African community and specialists from the African continent, and the museum will also carry out scientific research in several African countries. He wants to 'build living exhibitions on contemporary Africa, not dead Africa'.
View from the new Visitors' Pavilion © David Plas
A new glass building welcomes today's visitor, with enhanced visitor facilities, including a cafe, lockers and shop. An underground passageway leads to the original, monumental building, and houses one of the museum's largest exhibits - a long boat from Ubundu, Bamanga. Today the museum has been divided into a number of sections including Landscapes and Biodiversity, Rituals and Ceremonies, Languages and Music, Colonial History and a rotating exhibition using items from the collection. There is also a mineral room, Crocodile Room (described as a museum within a museum), a 'taxolab' and a space for children called Studio 6+.
The museum is keen 'to break with the old fashioned way of exhibiting and show the whole picture of the people living there [in Africa], and the dynamic relationship between men, animal and climate'.
Display from the Landscapes and Biodiversity rooms. © F. Richards
There has been much consultation with the Congolese community and in keeping with the new philosophy of the museum, it also incorporates works of art from contemporary African artists. One of the most touching is in the memorial gallery. In the original museum, a list of 1,508 Belgian men who died in the Congo free state between 1876 and 1908 were painted on the walls of the eastern courtyard entrance. Women and children who died were not listed. The memorial does not, however, make any reference to the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Congolese who died during the same period. During the renovation, the museum asked artist Freddy Tsimba to pay tribute to these invisible and nameless victims with a new work.
Ombres (Shadows) lists the name of seven Congolese who were exhibited during the 1897 World Expo in Brussels/Tervuren, and died there (yes, they did actually have Congolese people on view - a human zoo - with a sign asking the public not to feed them...The names of those who died are etched into the glass opposite the list of Belgian men and so when the sun shines, their names cast a shadow over them. It is a most fitting and thoughtful work of art.
Freddy Tsimba, Ombres (Shadows), 2016. Collection RMCA, inv. no. 2016.45. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver
Another contemporary exhibit is not a work of art but a robot. In a small room between the human sciences and the natural science galleries, a large traffic robot Moseka, stands in the centre of the room.
Apparently many traffic accidents happen in the Congo, many with fatal consequences. Artist Theresa Izzy Kirongozi and the Women’s Technology association, came up with the idea of a traffic robot. The robot controls the traffic at busy intersections in Kinshasa and other large cities in the Congo. In 2018 the museum acquired one of the robots. 2.90 m tall, 'she' stands on a plinth of 1.10 m and weighs 160 kg. She is powered by solar panels and moves with flashing lights to control the traffic. Around the robot are photographs by Nelson Makengo showing the very dense traffic at the Victoire roundabout in the heart of Kinshasa’s Matonge district.
In the former entrance rotunda to the museum, an area with an impressive dome, marble walls and a floor decoration that includes the star of the Congo free state, there is another large sculpture by artist Aime Mpane called new breath, or Burgeoning Congo. A giant head with square holes in it, this work is positioned here to give Africans a central place in the building, which was constructed in honour of Leopold II and his colonial enterprise.
Note the four central gilded bronze statues here by Arlene Matton (1873-1953), which represented a colonial vision. Belgians are presented as benefactors and civilisers, as if they had committed no atrocities in the Congo, and importantly, as if there was no civilisation there beforehand. Africans are actually physically presented as smaller than Europeans and it is such cliched colonial propaganda, that it is discomforting to view more than a century later.
Many are dubious of the new offerings of the Africa Museum, but I say give it a chance. The museum has obviously worked hard to overcome its past and turn it into something positive and with scientific activities in 20 countries, the museum aims to be a leader in the field of African science. And it is not hiding anything either. The old museum had models of the Congolese in stereotypical savage positioning (see leopard man below). These are obviously no longer included in the displays, but gathered together in a room on the lower-ground floor. It is good to see them, as they are another salient reminder of Belgium's colonial history.
This new museum works hard to educate and it is also a celebration of all things African and Congolese. As such it is well worth a visit. And as Director Gryseels says, "We hope to become a real meeting place and a centre for dialogue for people who take a keen interest in Africa".
The Royal Museum for Central Africa
There is a special tram that goes to the museum that leaves from the Montgomery underground stop. It takes 20 minutes.