Bel­gium’s bru­tal­ity in Africa haunts re­stored mu­seum

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - WORLD -

Bel­gium’s no­to­ri­ous Africa Mu­seum re­opened on Satur­day af­ter a five-year restora­tion that cu­ra­tors hope will bury its rep­u­ta­tion as a colonialist holdover.

Trea­sures looted from the con­ti­nent have been repack­aged in the hope of con­tribut­ing to a healthy de­bate about a bru­tal past and mul­ti­cul­tural fu­ture.

But there is an ele­phant in the room — and not just the gi­ant taxi­der­mic pachy­derm loom­ing over vis­i­tors to the re­mod­elled land­scapes and bio­di­ver­sity gallery.

The for­mer Royal Mu­seum for Cen­tral Africa re­opened in Tervuren Palace out­side Brus­sels amid a re­newed de­bate about re­turn­ing stolen arte­facts.

The mu­seum re­search team in­sists the ex­hibits will now take a much more crit­i­cal ap­proach to the depre­da­tions of King Leopold II and his agents in Congo.

But should Bel­gium still be hold­ing its African prizes at all and can it bet­ter in­te­grate its grow­ing African mi­nor­ity with­out first com­ing to terms with its past?

Sev­eral for­mer im­pe­rial pow­ers are con­fronting the is­sue, and last month French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron ad­mit­ted that Africa’s trea­sures should re­turn.

But Bel­gium stands out from its neigh­bours, in part be­cause in­sti­tu­tions like Tervuren Mu­seum have been rel­a­tively slow to adapt to the post-colo­nial era.

“The per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion had barely changed since 1958, two years be­fore Congo be­came in­de­pen­dent,” says cu­ra­tor and an­thro­pol­o­gist Bambi Ce­up­pens.

Be­fore it closed for re­fur­bish­ment in 2013, vis­i­tors were greeted by a statue un­crit­i­cally de­pict­ing white Eu­ro­pean mis­sion­ar­ies “bring­ing civil­i­sa­tion to Congo.”

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