Reinventing a colonial-era Africa Museum


TERVUREN, Belgium — Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium, but the Royal Museum for Central Africa still seems lodged within the colonial era.

Dusty cabinets are cluttered with moldering stuffed wildlife, mementos of expeditions led by pith-helmeted officers and jumbles of tribal artifacts with little explanation of their function or meaning.

The entrance hall is dominated by monumental statues glorifying colonial rule. Prominent among them is "Belgium bringing security to the Congo," which shows a naked African youth kneeling at the feet of an armor-clad white woman.

But it's not like museum staff don't know they have a problem.

“The permanent exhibition as you visit it today still basically reflects the view of Belgium on Africa before 1960,” acknowledged Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. “The way they set up things is very colonial.”

Successive administrators of the museum have struggled for decades to rustle up enough money to overhaul the exhibition halls, exorcise their colonial demons and create a worthy showcase for one of the world’s finest collections of African art.

Now Gryseels appears to have succeeded. He has mustered a 70 million euro budget (almost$100 million) for a four-year project designed to give the museum its first major refurbishment since 1958.

“We need to have a major renovation,” he said.

A high-profile exhibition running until January gives a taste of how the modernized museum may look. Called "Persona," the show presents 180 ritual masks mainly from Central and West Africa punctuated with contemporary works by African artists, including many working in Europe.

Spectacular Chokwe masks from the Congo-Angola border are juxtaposed with two works: a video installation by Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare and "Blacks' heads/Empty heads," a disturbing work featuring blacked out portraits by Togolese-born El Loko. An arrangement of ceremonial masks representing women leads to the rope and wood “Nude woman” by award-winning Senegalese sculptor Mustapha Dime.

“It’s about identity,” said the exhibition’s curator Anne-Marie Bouttiaux. “Some people in the (African) diaspora have the feeling they have to wear a mask to make an impression in their lives. That’s why it’s called 'Persona,' it reflects the roles people have to play.”

Many of the masks on show come from the museum’s matchless collection of Central African art, most which is kept in storage and only occasionally viewed by the public.

The museum in a leafy commuter town east of Brussels grew out of an exhibition that opened in 1898 to promote colonialism in the Central Africa.

Belgium’s King Leopold II had ruled the Congolese Free State virtually as a private domain since 1885, but the rapacious nature of the royal regime was coming under increasing international criticism, even from other colonial powers. The horrors of Leopold’s forced labor system inspired Joseph Conrad to write "Heart of Darkness. "

Leopold organized the exhibition in Tervuren to convince his Belgian subjects that the state should take on the running of a colony 80 times larger than their European homeland.

The exhibition was a success, visited by 1.5 million Belgians. After the Belgian state took oversight of the Congo in 1908, the current lavish fin-du-siecle museum building opened to hold the expanding collection of artifacts in 1910. The exploitative rule continued under the government, until the Belgians withdrew in 1960.

The failure to update the museum has long drawn criticism from those who say Belgium has never come to terms with the consequences of its colonial rule in Central Africa, where civil wars have continued to roil the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Until a few years ago, nothing on display gave any indication that millions of Congolese died unnatural deaths while these riches were being brought back to Europe,” Adam Hochschild, an American historian of Leopold’s regime, wrote in 2005. “It was as if there were a huge museum of Jewish art and culture in Berlin that made no mention of the Holocaust.”

Gryseels says there will be no attempt to airbrush the colonial era in the renovated regime. “We are not going to act as if that colonial past never existed, there will still be a part that shows that colonial history and put it in context,” he said.

However, he said he wants to put the emphasis on the richness of the African art in the collection, and focus on the museum’s parallel work as one of the leading European research centers on African history, culture, zoology, geology and forestry.

“We need to become a museum of the Africa of today and not on the Africa of the ‘50s,” Gryseels insisted.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Belgium:

Where's the Belgian pride?

A boy who never grows old gets bigger

A city divided into rich and poor