The plunder years: culture and the colony

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 01:00

Last month, George Clooney was drawn into a cultural debate that has long been a sensitive issue for Britain. Asked during a press conference in London’s National Gallery if the Elgin Marbles should continue to be housed in the British Museum or in Athens, the actor said the sculptures should be returned to the Parthenon from where they were taken by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.

Clooney was in town to promote The Monuments Men , a film that explores the ethical questions around cultural ownership as it tells the story of soldiers tasked with retrieving stolen art from Nazi Germany during the second World War.

The question of how a country should deal with the spoils of conquest has long- occupied western curators and museum directors. As Fintan O’Toole has argued, it is not just a question for former colonial powers. The Decorative Arts and History division of the National Museum of Ireland, at Collins Barracks in Dublin, has a vast collection of ethnographic art, much of which was collected by Irish soldiers and administrators in the British colonial service in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Belgian debate
The debate about how to present the complex legacy of a colonial past is taking place in Belgium, where the country’s Royal Museum of Central Africa is closing for a three-year renovation.

The grand, neoclassical building was built on the outskirts of Brussels by King Leopold II in the late 19th century as a monument to the Belgian Congo.

The project was originally intended to be temporary – the Brussels International Exhibition of 1897 was designed to celebrate the newly acquired empire in the Congo, with real-life African villagers brought to Belgium for the event. But a permanent museum to the Congo was built on the site, and its collection gradually increased as the Belgian colony expanded. The packed boats that docked in Antwerp provided a constant provision of treasures and plunders from the Congo.

Even by 1910, the Belgian empire was attracting international criticism, albeit by countries that were themselves involved in colonisation. Leopold II had edged into the “great game” of European expansion in Africa in the late 1870s, anxious to put the relatively new country of Belgium on the map.

At huge personal expense, the king engaged a number of individuals to navigate the competitive field of international diplomacy to stake his claim to the yet unclaimed wild landscape in central Africa.

Figures such as journalist-cum-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whose discovery of Dr David Livingstone propelled him to stardom, helped Leopold tame a territory that soon spanned an area 80 times the size of Belgium. Leopold never visited the colony.

Congo’s extensive rubber resources were the driving force of the colony’s expansion, with slave labour enforced on the native Congolese. A failure to fulfil rubber quotas led to murder and mutilation, with the severing of hands becoming a horrific symbol of the Belgian project. Some estimates put the death toll at up to 10 million.

The Museum of Central Africa maps the history of this period of Belgium’s past. The colonial perspective is shockingly apparent to the modern visitor – the vast rooms of exquisite African tribal art are presented through the prism of the coloniser, sanitised by the refined stucco walls of their grand surroundings. Stuffed animals are displayed against painted jungle scenes, an attempt at an authentic ethnographic depiction of African life.

However, glimpses into the dark underbelly of occupation are evident in the vast array of visual images, documents and maps on display. An 1884 painting by Belgian artist Edouard Manduau captures the reality of colonialism. Titled La Civilisation au Congo , the picture, painted in classic, European pastels, depicts a Congolese man on his knees tied to a post, being whipped. To the left, a soldier casually takes notes.

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.”