Belgian Africa Museum to take a more nuanced look at colonial past

After more than 10 years of renovation, the Africa Museum in Belgium will reopen Dec. 8 with a new perspective on Belgium's influence in Congo. The museum, built by colonialist King Leopold II, will now address Belgian abuses in Africa along with the development sponsored by the European nation. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
Africa Museum Director Guido Gryseels (l.) looks out at the original building from a new visitor center. The museum will reopen Dec. 8 with a more nuanced and realistic depiction of how King Leopold II and Belgium impacted Congolese lives and the nation's culture.

For decades, Belgian schoolchildren had come to the Africa Museum near Brussels to marvel at the stuffed animals, drums, ritual masks, and minerals that glowed in the darkness of vast cellars. Old colonialists lounged for languid lunches, reminiscing about their glorious past.

Hidden out of sight was the dark side of colonialism in Belgian Congo – the killings, the sepia photos of Congolese whose hands were hacked off purely out of petty retribution.

Not anymore. The museum, long called the last colonial museum in the world, is reopening on Saturday after more than 10 years spent revamping the building and overhauling its dated, one-sided approach to history.

It's been a huge challenge for director Guido Gryseels, who has to put Belgium's colonial abuse in its context in the very museum that the chief perpetrator of the horrors of Congo had built for his own glory. Worse, the culprit was a former monarch – Leopold II – whose dark legacy has long remained shielded from full scrutiny.

With the museum's reopening, "we provide the critical view of the colonial past," Mr. Gryseels said in an interview. "We try to provide the Africa[n] view of colonization."

A Congolese artist's statue receives pride of place in the new exhibition space, while many statues representing the most denigrating, clichéd views of the Congolese have been rounded up into a windowless room.

Still, the palatial 1910 museum is a protected monument, and erasing all the fingerprints of the king and perfidious glorification of colonialism was never an option. Leopold's double-L anagram is still plastered on walls and ceilings as the defiant stamp of a bygone era, and gold-lettered panels still lionize "Belgium offering civilization to Congo."

Gryseels maintains that history has its place, but he says he's not an apologist for colonialism or Belgium's suppression of Congo.

"It's immoral. It's based on the military occupation of a country. It's based on racism. It is based on the exploitation of resources," he said amid crates, ladders, and protective foil during the final stages of renovation.

The question is whether the museum's changes are enough to please a more assertive generation of Africans.

"I must say that in recent years the dialogue has become more difficult. The younger generations are far more militant," Gryseels said. "What they say is: 'The proof of the pudding will be in the eating'."

King Leopold's ruthless early rule over Congo from 1885 to 1908 is notorious for its brutality when the Congo Free State was practically his personal fiefdom.

American writer Adam Hochschild alleged in his 1998 book "King Leopold's Ghost" that Leopold reigned over the mass death of 10 million Congolese. In fiction, Belgian Congo provided the backdrop for "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad's classic novel on colonial exploitation.

After Leopold handed over Congo to the Belgian state, the tiny nation continued to hold sway over an area 80 times its size half a world away, until independence in 1960.

Colonialists have long regarded the museum as a haven of nostalgia. "For them, this is their home and they are very nostalgic about this place," Gryseels said. They see Belgium's role in Congo as benign: building roads, providing health care, spreading Christianity, and giving Congo a standard of living few others in Africa had at the time.

"They're a bit disappointed about the critical view," he said.

It'd be wrong to assume that all Africans were repulsed by the old museum. When Congolese-born Aime Enkobo moved to Brussels and wanted to show his children his heritage, he came to the Africa Museum.

"For me it was to show them our culture. What artists did, created, the aesthetics, to explain that. It is what interested me. It was not the images that showed that whites were superior to blacks .... My kids asked me no questions on that," Mr. Enkobo said.

Still, controversy is increasingly commonplace – and it has come from Belgians as well as the Congolese diaspora here.

Critics have increasingly questioned street names honoring colonialists, and statues have been given explanatory plaques highlighting the death and destruction colonialism spawned. A sculpture of Leopold II has had its bronze hand chopped off, and another was targeted with rude graffiti last year.

A lot of work is left. "You won't find a town or city in Belgium, where you don't have a colonial street name, monument, or plaque. It is everywhere," said activist and historian Jean-Pierre Laus.

He was instrumental in getting one of the first explanatory plaques next to a Leopold statue in the town of Halle, just south of Brussels, almost a decade ago. Instead of glorifying the monarch, it now reads: "the rubber and ivory trade, which was largely controlled by the King, took a heavy toll on Congolese lives."

Instead of damaging or destroying statues, Enkobo has created a new one, right in the main hall of the new Africa Museum. It is a huge wooden lattice profile of a Congolese man, looking proudly, perhaps defiantly, at the condescending colonial statues all around him.

"I didn't want to respond to the negative with something negative," the artist said in his studio. "It is easy to destroy – but have we thought of the others and history? It is interesting to leave traces."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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