The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.
The first Congo Museum opened in 1898, replacing the temporary Palace of the Colonies constructed on the same site for the previous year’s World’s Fair. (During the fair around 260 Congolese were forced to live in three temporary villages on the palace grounds. Seven died of exposure.) Almost as soon as it opened, the Congo Museum was thought too small for all the ethnographic, zoological and geological artefacts being shipped back from the Congo Free State. Leopold commissioned Charles Girault to design a much grander monument to his colonial exploits. In 1910, the new Museum of the Belgian Congo opened its doors. The slight name change is significant: two years earlier, Leopold, in the face of one of the first major international human rights campaigns, and mounting debts, had been forced to hand over the Congo to the Belgian government.
The Africa Museum was last renovated in 1958, again for a World’s Fair. Two years later the Congo gained independence; the museum changed its name to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Since then it has remained largely untouched, seemingly oblivious to shifts in attitudes, or in museology. The rows of dusty glass cases carry very little explanation, although in the section entitled ‘Congo: The Colonial Era’, Patrice Lumumba is described as a ‘destabilising element’.
‘Our museum went through a bit of a crisis after 1960 because no one wanted to be associated with the colonial project,’ says Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. An agricultural economist who worked in Ethiopia for almost a decade, Gryseels is overseeing a complete overhaul of the museum, which was due to begin this month but has now been postponed until the middle of next year. The new museum will apparently have a greater focus on contemporary Africa, and take a more critical approach to Belgium’s colonial past.
The €80 million renovation project has not been straightforward. Girault’s building and its contents are protected, including around thirty depictions of Leopold in various media. ‘Some will stay, some will go, but they will certainly be put in perspective,’ Gryseels says. There have also been calls for the place to be left as a ‘museum of a museum’, as a reminder to future generations of the way colonial subjects were perceived. For others, mainly older Belgians, the museum is a source of pride that should remain as it is. ‘If someone is prepared to give me the money to build a new museum alongside,’ Gryseels says, ‘I’d be happy to keep it as a memory of the past. But where am I going to find €120 million to build a new museum like that?’
Neal Ascherson writes in The King Incorporated that in November 1908, as ‘the starred flag of the Free State was hauled down in the Congo for the last time,’ Leopold published a document claiming that he had tried to ‘open the darkness of Africa to a ray of light’ and that he had never profited from his colonial holdings. In fact he made vast sums from his private fiefdom, though he never went to the Congo, or even to the Palace of the Colonies during the 1897 Brussels World’s Fair.
Each year, around 150 Congolese scientists and curators are trained at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but for now there are no plans to repatriate any artefacts to the DRC. ‘At the moment there are no calls for the return of any heritage,’ says Gryseels. During the 1970s, around 200 objects were returned to the regime of Mobuto Sese Seko. Many eventually reappeared on the black market in Brussels.