The plunder years: culture and the colony

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels is at the centre of a debate about how to present the complex legacy of the colonial past and the ethics of cultural ownership

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 01:00

A 1948 photograph shows a young white Belgian state official being carried by native Congolese in a hammock. It is one of the many visual representations of the power dynamics that underpinned the establishment of the Congo Free State. The various legal documents on display tell a similar story of conquest.

An 1888 document setting out an “agreement between Ne Corado, Ne Lucallo and the Congo Free State for the transfer of lands, 1888” includes a smudge indicating the signature of the landowner – few of the natives who signed over their lands understood the nature of the transaction.

Despite the dubious imperialist narrative, the richness of the museum’s collection is unquestionable.

Some 10 million zoological items, 150,000 ethnographic objects, and three kilometres of historical archives, including the archives of Stanley, are contained within its walls. It also houses papers documenting the contemporary movement against Leopold’s regime in the Congo, including documents related to Irish patriot Roger Casement, who was appointed by the British to investigate human-rights abuses in Congo.

Researchers from fields as diverse as mining, geology and ethnomusicology use the museum for its research resources, which include unique audio recordings.

A turning point
The decision to refurbish the Royal Museum marks a turning point in Belgium’s relationship with its colonial past, says Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director.

The Belgian Congo is still a highly sensitive subject in Belgium, where remnants of its colonial legacy remain, from the extraordinary pockets of private wealth in cities such as Antwerp and Brussels, to the vibrant African art market that still thrives in Brussels.

Gryseels says that Belgium has only recently begun to openly discuss the realities of a regime that survived until 1960.

A cultural shift in the ethos of the museum can be traced back to a decade ago, when it held a series of exhibitions designed to take a fresh view on Africa, he says. “Before then, the Belgians never did any soul-searching or really critically reviewed its past, but there has been a change of mindset,” he says. “Twenty years ago, Belgium wasn’t ready for it.”

The €66 million restoration project will see a refurbishment of the existing building and the addition of a new pavilion. The collections and archives, which are currently spread over six buildings, will be housed in a new collection tower, while the scientific institute that is part of the museum complex will eventually be located in the National Centre for Scientific Research.

The aim of the renovation will be to provide a fresh perspective on Africa, by presenting a more nuanced interpretation of the colonial story, says Gryseels. He wants to preserve the pedagogical function of the museum – which was for so long concerned with giving the Belgian public a collective, authorised version of the colonial story – by opening it out to African visitors, scholars and institutions.

“We will obviously retain the museum for Belgian colonial history, but we want to reflect a new vision of Africa,” he says. “We would like to be a window on to contemporary Africa, on the Africa of today.”

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