Belgium’s AfricaMuseum has a darkish colonial previous – it is making sluggish progress in confronting this historical past

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Racist shows and tales stay on show in a number of western European museums. They embody grotesque objects depicting African folks as “savage” and “wild”. Narratives of a “continent with out historical past” and fantasies of European superiority are nonetheless instructed in ethnographic museums, just like the Humboldt Discussion board in Berlin and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

These museums have been criticised by students and activists for the reason that Nineteen Seventies. Their dealing with of objects looted through the colonial interval, particularly from Africa, is seen as an indicator of the political relations between Europe and African nations.

Criticism ranges from the illegitimate acquisition of the objects to the often-racist illustration of the African continent and its inhabitants. It additionally contains the dearth of participation by African and diasporic actors.

After preliminary hesitation, Belgium, a former colonial energy, opened itself to debate about reparations, justice and a standard future with its African companions within the late Nineteen Nineties.

This alteration in perspective was accelerated by mounting strain from the Black Lives Matter motion in Belgium. Worldwide advances by different former colonial powers like France, Germany and Nice Britain within the restitution debate additionally created impetus.

The AfricaMuseum within the Tervuren suburb is on the centre of those debates in Belgium. It’s an establishment within the means of repairing its troubled historical past.

An long shot of a beige building with its reflection showing in a pool of water

The principle constructing of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren constructed within the 1900s.
Wikimedia Commons

As a white and privileged researcher who focuses on colonial reminiscence, racism and anti-colonial actions in Europe, my perspective on the AfricaMuseum is split. For greater than 10 years, the museum has been a part of my cultural research analysis. In my opinion, the museum is marked by a dusty previous and has proven little proof of post-colonial self-reflection. However, there are critical efforts to vary.

Colonial looting

The AfricaMuseum’s forerunner was initiated in 1897 by the Belgian king Leopold II (1835-1909). It was a colonial human zoo inside the Brussels World’s Truthful. A Congolese village was recreated in Tervuren “exhibiting” 60 Congolese residents. Seven of them didn’t survive the exhibition, which lasted a number of months.

A sculpture of a man drumming while another one holds up a spear ready to attack another man who is lying on the ground. They are in the centre of a room that has knives and swords on display on the walls

Racist depictions of Africans within the museum within the Twenties.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1910, the house opened because the Museum of the Belgian Congo and introduced ethnographic collections. The colonial establishment initially served the aim of legitimising the brutal colonial rule within the Congo Basin. It promoted the so-called “civilising mission” in Africa among the many Belgian inhabitants.

It introduced an alleged European superiority, underlined with pseudo-scientific strategies and a racist illustration of African cultures.

The exhibited objects had been principally looted from colonised territories by Belgian officers, the navy and personal individuals.

There was little consciousness of those materials and immaterial injustices in Belgium till the late Nineteen Nineties. To this present day, some conservative positions glorify the Belgian colonial interval as a justified and philanthropic enterprise.

Even after the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence on 30 June 1960, the museum retained its unique idea below the title Royal Museum for Central Africa. It exuded a peculiar type of colonial “nostalgia”. As late as 2001, the US anthropologist Jean Muteba Rahier described the museum as a colonial place frozen in time.

In 2013, the museum was closed for intensive renovations. It reopened because the AfricaMuseum in December 2018, with the then director Guido Gryseels saying:

… the museum has distanced itself from colonialism as a type of authorities and accepts accountability for the half it performed prior to now in disseminating stereotypes about Africa.

At this time, the AfricaMuseum holds over 125,000 ethnographic objects. It has 300,000 geological specimens, 8,000 musical devices and practically 10 million organic reveals. It additionally holds sound and movie recordings. A number of human stays are among the many museum’s collections.

Wooden sculptures on display behind a glass case.

Congolese sculptures on show on the AfricaMuseum.
Julien Bobineau

The origin and precise circumstances of the acquisition of those objects stay largely unexplained. It may be assumed that a lot of the assortment was illegally looted through the colonial interval.

Recognising African heritage

Carefully associated to the query of restitution is a revision of the best way Africa and Africans are represented in ethnographic museums. The AfricaMuseum tried to deal with this in its 2013-2018 renovation.

But, some objects stay positioned in a context that permits for a pejorative view of Africa. That is evidenced by the mix of the depiction of Congolese tradition and the pure historical past of humankind in a single house.

After French president Emmanuel Macron triggered extra debate over restitution whereas in Burkina Faso in 2017, the AfricaMuseum targeted on addressing the origin of its objects. Reparation and illustration of African and diasporic voices turned a precedence.

This was supported by political debates within the Belgian parliament in 2021 and 2022. They led to the formulation of moral rules for restitution.

A brand new legislation was handed that gives a framework for the return of looted objects. It is a place to begin for a redefinition of Belgian-Congolese relations.

Early outcomes

Belgium has since despatched the Democratic Republic of Congo a draft bilateral restitution treaty. It proposes, for instance, a joint fee to coordinate scientific investigations into the origin of objects in Belgium’s possession.

In June 2021, the possession rights of just about 800 looted objects from the AfricaMuseum had been transferred to the Congolese state – although they nonetheless haven’t totally returned to Kinshasa.

In February 2022, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo introduced Congolese prime minister Jean-Michel Lukonde with a listing of greater than 84,000 artefacts from the Congo. These artefacts have been in Belgium’s possession since colonisation and at the moment are to be examined with a view to doable restitution.

Subsequent steps

The restitution of looted objects from former colonies in Africa is an integral part of a post-colonial reparation.

Some European politicians, museum administrators and students have pointed to an alleged lack of storage services in Africa. This argument shouldn’t rely.

The overwhelming majority of artefacts had been seized from their unique context and solely reworked into “artwork objects” in European museums. In Germany, for instance, debate flared up this 12 months as as to whether restituted Benin bronzes ought to develop into the personal property of the royal household of Benin – the authentic homeowners – or be exhibited in Nigerian museums. This shouldn’t be Germany’s concern.

To place restitution into observe, 4 issues are wanted now:

  • humility on the European aspect

  • a deeper willingness for cooperation

  • funds

  • clear and open dialogue.

The brand new Belgian path exhibits that this appears doable, although there’s nonetheless a protracted technique to go.


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