Belgian museum faces up to its brutal colonial legacy
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.”
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 Prince Harry leaving the armed forced to pursue conservation projects in Africa
- 4 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Boris Nemtsov shot dead: Outspoken Putin critic who had expressed fears for his life is killed near the Kremlin
Leonard Nimoy dead: Star Trek Spock actor dies after suffering lung disease
PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin, says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
White and gold or blue and black – what colour is the dress? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...
Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...
salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...
£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...