Belgian museum faces up to its brutal colonial legacy

 

Brussels

The institution dubbed the last colonial museum in the world is packing up its stuffed animals and controversial statues this weekend as it closes down for a three-year makeover aimed at modernising the monument to King Leopold II and his murderous reign in the Belgian Congo.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa, at Tervuren on the outskirts of Brussels, began life as a temporary exhibition in 1897. As accounts of mass murder, mutilation and enslavement began emerging from the Congo, which Leopold had been running as his private fiefdom since 1885, the king decided to host a show celebrating his great “civilising” mission and all the riches it would bring.

The exhibition was so successful that it was transformed into the permanent museum which stands today, all its neoclassical flourishes funded by money from the pillaged African nation. But while books such as King Leopold’s Ghost have exposed the brutal truth about the colonial occupation, the museum has remained frozen in time.

“The last time the museum was changed profoundly was in 1957, before the independence of Congo [in 1960],” said Guido Gryseels, the director, who is determined finally to haul the museum into the 21st century.

Entering the grand rotunda, visitors are greeted with statues of Europeans in gilded robes cradling naked African children, above plaques that extol Belgium for bringing “civilisation”, “security” and “well-being” to the Congo.

There is a wall devoted to the thousands of Belgians killed in the country, but barely a word on the millions of Congolese victims. Africans are portrayed as savages in loincloths and brandishing spears, while in almost every room there is a statue of a regal Leopold, including one bust carved entirely from ivory.

Belgium’s Congolese community has been lobbying the museum for decades to remove or contextualise the exhibits. Mr Gryseels said the turning point came in 2005 when the museum hosted an exhibition directly addressing colonial abuses. “Until that time in Belgium, everybody still followed the premise that Belgium had brought civilisation to Africa,” he said.

Now he feels the nation is ready for a museum reflecting modern Africa. When it reopens in 2017, the focus will be on showcasing the diversity of the continent in zones entitles “Man & Society” and “Landscape & Biodiversity”.

Visitors will no longer enter through the rotunda where the statues stand. Instead, they will pass through a tunnel explaining the context of the colonial-era exhibits, some of which will remain. “We are not going to throw everything out of this museum and just act as if the colonial past never happened,” Mr Gryseels said. “We will remain a place of memories on the colonial past but, at the same time, we want to become a window on contemporary Africa.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas