Belgium has long struggled to deal with its colonial past, a period that saw millions of Africans in Congo and Rwanda die from disease, starvation and violence.Now the country’s Museum of Africa, which once housed looted colonial treasures and included a human zoo among its displays, has undergone a five-year, $73 million revamp in an effort to show the reality of empire and of modern Africa.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa opened in 1910 under the reign of King Leopold II, as a showcase for his empire and the colonial riches that it delivered.Just over a century later, the museum has attempted a complete reversal, says Director Guido Gryseels.
“Our aim was to make a museum of contemporary Africa, the Africa of today, but at the same time to also bring a very critical look on the colonial past of Belgium.We recognize now the many victims of colonization, the African victims of colonization.We recognize too that a lot of the racist attitudes that were developed at that time have their consequences today.”
Such attitudes are personified by a group of statues showing Africans as primitive or savage – attacking each other with weapons, men using ancient hand tools, women dancing topless.They used to be dotted around the museum, but are now grouped in a single room in the basement.
Other collections have been given new captions explaining their provenance and displayed alongside modern African art.Videos offer African perspectives on diverse contemporary topics like culture, the legacy of colonialism and climate change.
Not everything can be recast.Built into the walls are statues of Africans gazing adoringly at their white masters, with titles like "Belgium brings well-being to Congo.”
The ornate grounds once housed a human zoo of more than 250 Congolese.Seven died from exposure to the cold after being forced to wear traditional dress.
King Leopold II commissioned the museum to generate investment for mining and rubber production in Congo and Rwanda, which then included the modern state of Burundi.For many, his name is synonymous with the brutality of empire.It’s estimated that as many as 15 million Africans died through disease, famine and genocide under Belgian rule.
Congo gained independence in 1960 and Rwanda in 1962.
Mireille-Tsheusi Robert of the Brussels-based anti-racism organization Bamko-Cran argues the museum hasn’t gone far enough in displaying the horrors of colonialism.
“When the museum is not presented as a museum of colonization, but instead as a museum of Africa, that really confuses the issue.Honestly, we need to make a real museum of colonization, we need to deal with our colonial history.It’s really something that’s missing in Belgium,” Robert told VOA.
Interwoven into the debate over the legacy of empire is the question of where the treasures belong.Hundreds of thousands of items were looted during the 80 years of colonial rule.Museum Director Guido Gryseels says he is open to returning stolen goods.
“Certainly it’s not normal that 80 percent of African art is in European museums or in European private collections.So we have to make sure that they can get much greater access to our collections. Congo at the moment lacks capacity to deal with a lot of that heritage.”
Among those attending the opening of the Museum of Africa this month was the director of Congo’s Institute of Museums, Paul Bakua-Lufu Badibanga. While praising his hosts’ new approach in the museum and the willingness to discuss the return of artifacts, he argues the issue of security is not a real problem.“It is being used as a pretext for not giving back the objects,” he told VOA.
The revamp of the Museum of Africa has forced Belgium to confront its colonial past in new ways.Those behind the project say this is one more step on the long road to reconciliation.