Mu­seum takes new look the past


Lethbridge Herald - - GREAT ESCAPES - Raf Casert

For decades, Bel­gian school­child­ren had come to the Africa Mu­seum near Brus­sels to marvel at the stuffed an­i­mals, drums, rit­ual masks and min­er­als that glowed in the dark­ness of vast cel­lars. Old colo­nial­ists lounged for lan­guid lunches, rem­i­nisc­ing about their glo­ri­ous past.

Hid­den out of sight was the dark side of colo­nial­ism in Bel­gian Congo - the killings, the sepia pho­tos of Con­golese whose hands were hacked off purely out of petty retri­bu­tion.

Not any­more. The mu­seum, long called the last colo­nial mu­seum in the world, is re­open­ing to­day af­ter more than 10 years spent re­vamp­ing the build­ing and over­haul­ing its dated, onesided ap­proach to his­tory.

It’s been a huge chal­lenge for di­rec­tor Guido Gry­seels, who has to put Bel­gium’s colo­nial abuse in its con­text in the very mu­seum that the chief per­pe­tra­tor of the hor­rors of Congo had built for his own glory. Worse, the cul­prit was a for­mer monarch — Leopold II — whose dark legacy has long re­mained shielded from full scru­tiny.

With the mu­seum’s re­open­ing, “we pro­vide the crit­i­cal view of the colo­nial past,” Gry­seels said in an in­ter­view. “We try to pro­vide the Africa view of col­o­niza­tion.”

A Con­golese artist’s statue re­ceives pride of place in the new ex­hi­bi­tion space, while many stat­ues rep­re­sent­ing the most den­i­grat­ing, cliched views of the Con­golese have been rounded up into a win­dow­less room.

Still, the pala­tial 1910 mu­seum is a pro­tected mon­u­ment, and eras­ing all the fin­ger­prints of the king and per­fid­i­ous glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of colo­nial­ism was never an op­tion. Leopold’s dou­ble-L ana­gram is still plas­tered on walls and ceil­ings as the de­fi­ant stamp of a by­gone era, and goldlet­tered pan­els still li­on­ize “Bel­gium of­fer­ing civ­i­liza­tion to Congo.”

The Royal Palace said that King Philippe was not at­tend­ing Satur­day’s cer­e­mo­nial open­ing, cit­ing con­tin­u­ing de­bates on art resti­tu­tion and dis­agree­ments among re­searchers and the African di­as­pora. “The king tends to go to events where con­sen­sus reigns,” a palace of­fi­cial said.

Gry­seels main­tains that his­tory has its place, but he says he’s not an apol­o­gist for colo­nial­ism or Bel­gium’s sup­pres­sion of Congo.

“It’s im­moral. It’s based on the mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of a coun­try. It’s based on racism. It is based on the ex­ploita­tion of re­sources,” he said amid crates, lad­ders and pro­tec­tive foil dur­ing the fi­nal stages of ren­o­va­tion.

The ques­tion is whether the mu­seum’s changes are enough to please a more as­sertive gen­er­a­tion of Africans.

“I must say that in re­cent years the di­a­logue has be­come more dif­fi­cult. The younger gen­er­a­tions are far more mil­i­tant,” Gry­seels said. “What they say is: ‘The proof of the pud­ding will be in the eat­ing’.”

Leopold’s ruth­less early rule over Congo from 1885 to 1908 is no­to­ri­ous for its bru­tal­ity when the Congo Free State was prac­ti­cally his per­sonal fief­dom.

Amer­i­can writer Adam Hochschild al­leged in his 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” that Leopold reigned over the mass death of 10 mil­lion Con­golese. In fic­tion, Bel­gian Congo pro­vided the back­drop for “Heart of Dark­ness,” Joseph Con­rad’s clas­sic novel on colo­nial ex­ploita­tion.

Af­ter Leopold handed over Congo to the Bel­gian state, the tiny na­tion con­tin­ued to hold sway over an area 80 times its size half a world away, un­til in­de­pen­dence in 1960.

Colo­nial­ists have long re­garded the mu­seum as a haven of nos­tal­gia. “For them, this is their home and they are very nostal­gic about this place,” Gry­seels said. They see Bel­gium’s role in Congo as be­nign: build­ing roads, pro­vid­ing health care, spreading Chris­tian­ity and giv­ing Congo a stan­dard of liv­ing few oth­ers in Africa had at the time.

“They’re a bit dis­ap­pointed about the crit­i­cal view,” he said.

It’d be wrong to as­sume that all Africans were re­pulsed by the old mu­seum.

When Con­golese-born Aime Enkobo moved to Brus­sels and wanted to show his chil­dren his her­itage, he came to the Africa­Mu­seum.

“For me it was to show them our cul­ture. What artists did, cre­ated, the es­thet­ics, to ex­plain that. It is what in­ter­ested me. It was not the im­ages that showed that whites were su­pe­rior to blacks .... My kids asked me no ques­tions on that,” Enkobo said.

Still, con­tro­versy is in­creas­ingly com­mon­place - and it has come from Bel­gians as well as the Con­golese di­as­pora here.

Crit­ics have in­creas­ingly ques­tioned street names hon­our­ing colo­nial­ists, and stat­ues have been given ex­plana­tory plaques high­light­ing the death and de­struc­tion colo­nial­ism spawned.

A sculp­ture of Leopold II has had its bronze hand chopped off, and an­other was tar­geted with rude graf­fiti last year.

A lot of work is left. “You won’t find a town or city in Bel­gium, where you don’t have a colo­nial street name, mon­u­ment or plaque.

“It is ev­ery­where,” said ac­tivist and his­to­rian Jean-Pierre Laus.

He was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting one of the first ex­plana­tory plaques next to a Leopold statue in the town of Halle, just south of Brus­sels, al­most a decade ago. In­stead of glo­ri­fy­ing the monarch, it now reads: “the rub­ber and ivory trade, which was largely con­trolled by the King, took a heavy toll on Con­golese lives.”

In­stead of dam­ag­ing or de­stroy­ing stat­ues, Enkobo has cre­ated a new one, right in the main hall of the new Africa Mu­seum. It is a huge wooden lat­tice pro­file of a Con­golese man, look­ing proudly, per­haps defiantly, at the con­de­scend­ing colo­nial stat­ues all around him.

“I didn’t want to re­spond to the neg­a­tive with some­thing neg­a­tive,” the artist said in his stu­dio. “It is easy to de­stroy — but have we thought of the oth­ers and his­tory?”

As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tos

A sculp­ture called the “Leop­ard Man” is stored with oth­ers in a cav­ernous room at the Africa Mu­seum in Tervuren, Bel­gium. The mu­seum is re­open­ing to­day af­ter more than 10 years spent re­vamp­ing the build­ing and over­haul­ing its dated, one-sided ap­proach to his­tory.

A stuffed ele­phant on dis­play in the halls of the Africa Mu­seum in Tervuren, Bel­gium.

As­so­ci­ated Press photo

Mu­seum Di­rec­tor Guido Gry­seels, right, walks by a stuffed gi­raffe at the Africa Mu­seum in Tervuren, Bel­gium.

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