Belgium’s brutality in Africa haunts restored museum
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.”