In December 2021, we visited the AfricaMuseum or Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren. A historic building and institution in Belgium, it obviously has a controversial subject, as Belgium had the Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a colony. When one mentions colony, one mentions abuse, exploitation and worse.
The RMCA is an ethnography and natural history museum situated in Tervuren in Flemish Brabant, just outside Brussels. The tram ride – tram 44 is the closest – from Montgomery metro station is a scenic ride through a green area of Brussels.
It was built to showcase King Leopold II‘s Congo Free State in the International Exposition of 1897.
The museum focuses on the Congo, a former Belgian colony. The sphere of interest, however (especially in biological research), extends to the whole Congo River basin, Middle Africa, East Africa, and West Africa, attempting to integrate Africa as a whole.
Intended originally as a colonial museum, from 1960 onwards it has focused more on ethnography and anthropology. Like most museums, it houses a research department in addition to its public exhibit department.
Not all research pertains to Africa (e.g. research on the archaeozoology of Sagalassos, Turkey). Some researchers have strong ties with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
In November 2013, the museum closed for extensive renovation work (including the construction of new exhibition space) and re-opened in December 2018 under its new name.
We never visited the old version and this was our first time in the rethought AfricaMuseum.
Dealing with a painful past
Congo as a subject is delicate. The old exhibition was colonialist, featuring problematic exhibits and artwork. From ‘merely’ paternalistic imagery showing Europeans as saviors and civilizers of Africa to blatant racist depictions of African people in the 19th century and in the 20th century.
“Leopold II saw the museum as a propaganda tool for his colonial project, aimed at attracting investors and winning over the Belgian population. It was in 1898 that the temporary exhibition became the first permanent museum of the Congo. The institute has always served the dual purpose of museum and scientific institute”, the museum websites states.
Very early on, the Africa Palace turned out to be too small. Leopold II called on the services of Charles Girault, the architect of the Petit Palais in Paris, and embarked upon an ambitious construction programme. The plans were for a complete site with a new museum of the Congo, an international school, a congress centre, a station, Chinese pavilions and a sports centre.
These construction projects were financed by the profits from the royal private domain of the Congo. As Leopold II had died before the works were completed, it was King Albert I who inaugurated the museum on 30 April 1910.
The name of the museum has changed several times in the course of its history. From Museum of the Congo, it became the Museum of the Belgian Congo when the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo. In 1952, by Royal Decree, the museum became the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo. It finally became the Royal Museum for Central Africa at the time of Congo’s independence. Since the renovation, the museum is more commonly known as AfricaMuseum.
The AfricaMuseum reopened on 8 December 2018, after a five-year renovation.
“The permanent exhibition was outdated and its infrastructure was obsolete, but the biggest challenge was to present a contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa in a building which had been designed as a colonial museum”, the website states.
Dealing with the painful past is an ongoing process. It’s a permanent balancing act between acknowledging the past, cherish (parts of) that past and acknowledging new understandings of that painful past, the struggle for decolonisation, the wish for healing, for reparations, retributions and – for some – for revenge.
More on this subject on the RMCA website:
- Mission, ethics and organisation.
- The viewpoints of the museum.
- Restitution policy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa.
The grand rotunda
The grand rotunda of the AfricaMuseum is a perfect symbol of the museum’s approach. The room itself invites criticism and commentary. During the renovation, there was talk of removing the colonial statues from the niches in the grand rotunda, but Onroerend Erfgoed, Flanders Heritage Agency, indicated that they were an integral part of the listed building.
The AfricaMuseum then launched a competition for African artists or artists with African roots to create a work of art that could countervail the colonial statues. The Congolese artist Aimé Mpane was selected by the jury for his work ‘Nouveau souffle ou le Congo bourgeonnant‘, a monumental openwork wooden statue that was placed in the grand rotunda shortly before the reopening of the museum.
Despite explanatory texts, many visitors expressed that they did not always perceive the museum’s desire to convey a decolonial message in the grand rotunda. A working group of the UN Human Rights Council also strongly urged the museum to suppress all colonial propaganda and to clearly present the violence and inequalities of Belgium’s colonial past.
In response to these criticisms, Aimé Mpane was invited to place a second sculpture in the grand rotunda. This work, also in openwork wood, represents the ‘Skull of Chief Lusinga‘ and refers to the raid by the Belgian officer Emile Storms on the village of Lusinga in 1884, an expedition during which the chief’s head was cut off before being taken to Belgium. The skull was kept at the RMCA until 1964 and then passed on to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
The two wooden statues face each other; one referring to the death and violence of the past, the other to dignity and the promise of the future.
Aimé Mpane then asked the Belgian artist Jean-Pierre Müller to work with him in confronting the heritage represented by the set of colonial statues in the rotunda and the fraught history they embody.
Their project ‘RE/STORE‘ presents a set of sixteen semi-transparent veils, hung at a slight distance from the existing statues, and on which contemporary images are printed. Their superimposition creates a visual and semantic shock that allows a new reading of a heavy heritage and challenges its historical and ideological content.
Access to the museum is now through the new visitor centre, which hosts a ticket office, shop, restaurant, picnic area for children and cloakrooms.
The visitor walks along the new underground gallery then heads into the basement of the former edifice, where an introductory exhibition looks at the past, the present and the future prospects of the institution. The inner courtyard of the museum building has been excavated to create a light shaft and provide space for music workshops.
It is perhaps odd to start with what’s wrong. The first artifacts are deeply colonioal, racist and white supremacist. Perhaps the AfricaMuseum wants to get that out of the way before you see the actual collection. As if you first need to swallow something with a bad taste before you get to consume the sweet stuff.
Bt some of the statues are iconic. Prime example is the ‘Aniota‘ statue of the Leopard Society. The imagery has been made popular by Hergé‘s ‘Tintin in the Congo‘ album. Other imagery inspired sections of the ‘Nos Gloires‘ history albums.
The ground floor
On the ground floor, the exhibition is divided up into five thematic zones that are primarily dedicated to Central Africa.
The museum sections are:
- ‘Landscapes and Biodiversity’;
- ‘The Resource Paradox’;
- ‘Mineral Cabinet’;
- ‘The Crocodile Room’;
- ‘Long History’;
- ‘Colonial History and Independence’;
- ‘Studio 6+’;
- ‘Rituals and Ceremonies’;
- ‘Languages and Music’;
- ‘Rumba Studio’;
- ‘Temporary Exhibition’.
The museum is quite extensive. If you want to read it ‘all’, listen to all sound clips and watch all videos, you need many hours, perhaps a full day.
The permanent exhibition covers many areas of interest and you leave the museum having learned heaps about the Congo and its troubled history and present.
When we visited, the temporary exhibition on display was ‘Human Zoo. The age of colonial exhibitions‘.
Although the exhibition focuses on the ‘Congolese villages’ of Tervuren, Antwerp (1885 and 1894) and Brussels (1958), it also places the phenomenon in an international context, showing how peoples from all countries were exhibited. Some of them did not survive.
These human zoos weren’t only a European-African issue. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a human zoo as well. Other colonial exhibitions in Europe, America, Asia and Africa displayed people from all over the world. From the Caribbean, from the Pacific Islands, Inuit from the Arctic etc.
We finished our visit at Bistro Tembo, enjoying ‘Chicken Moambe based on traditional recipe’, ‘Bobotie’ and ‘Soft Kenyan chocolate mousse’.
The AfricaMuseum is absolutely worth a visit. For its collection, for its history and four education on our own history. For the building and for an Africa-inspired meal.
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