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Belgium's Africa Museum Tries to Shed Its Colonial Past

Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa is getting a $90 million renovation. For many, it's long overdue.

The space was originally imagined as a "Palace of the Colonies" for the 1897 World's Fair. A year later, King Leopold II turned it into a permanent museum to highlight the country's colonial conquests.

Even today, a visit starts with a walk past a golden statue of a European missionary holding an African child. A plaque reads, "Belgium brings civilization to Congo." In one room, visitors can see "Leopard Man," a sculpture of a masked African sneaking up to attack a sleeping victim, made by a white artist.

At the turn of the 20th century, when non-western people were sometimes captured and put on exhibit at zoos and fairs (Leopold did that too), the museum hardly seemed controversial. But today, critics say whitewashes the realities of the brutal, decades-long occupation. A catastrophic combination of deadly working conditions, famine, failed rebellions, plummeting birth rates, and the spread of diseases leading to millions of deaths by 1908.

As Adam Hoschschild of the New York Review of Books said of a 2005 exhibit, "again and again, both the Royal Museum’s exhibit and its catalog pass glancingly over the darker side of an aspect of the Congo’s history, and then stress its benign side. The technique is effective, because it doesn’t seem like denial at all."

Now, the museum is trying to shake that past for good. Museum officials want the museum to focus on Africa today, adding on their website that the permanent exhibition is "extremely dated" and "in sharp contrast with the temporary exhibitions which tend to concentrate on scientific research and the topicality of the collections."

At the same time, it hasn't been able to shake some of its most controversial elements. According to Reuters, the European missionary statue isn't going anywhere. Neither is the Leopard Man. The museum's director Guido Gryseels says too many changes too quickly would offend older Belgians, nostalgic for a time when the country was on top. "It's walking a tightrope and you've got to go step by step," Gryseels tells Reuters. "Don't offend them too quickly with too much criticism that everything was bad."


A modern sculpture by Belgian artist Tom Frantzen shows former Belgian King Leopold II surrounded by animals and African warriors in the park of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A sculpture of an African musician is seen in the park of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A wooden canoe is seen in an empty hall at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


Elephant tusks are seen near stuffed animals at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A stuffed tiger and leopards are seen wrapped in plastic at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A giant golden statue of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes is seen at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A modern sculpture by Belgian artist Tom Frantzen of former Belgian King Leopold II is seen in the park of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, near Brussels, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


Empty showcases are seen at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


An undated postcard shows a hotel built for visitors to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels, January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)


A woman holds linen at the window of a former hotel near the Royal Museum for Central Africa, January 22, 2014.  (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Keywords: Museums, Belgium, Africa

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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