Renovating the AfricaMuseum

An overview of some of the problems and opportunities that the reopening of Belgium's infamous AfricaMuseum brings.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gillian Mathys (GM)
Margot Luyckfasseel (ML)
Sarah Van Beurden (SVB)
Tracy Tansia (TT)

After five years of renovation that cost over 65 million euros, the infamous AfricaMuseum in Belgium has reopened its doors. Even before it opened, it caused much turmoil in the Belgian press. Bamko cran, a Belgian intercultural organization, criticized the presence of human remains in an open letter supported by several international signatories. Artists such as Laura Nsengiyumva and Toma Luntumbue denounced the museum’s lack of radical approaches to decolonization; and Billy Kalonji, of COMRAF, the diaspora organization advising on the museum’s renovation, castigated the lack of participation of the African diaspora in the renovations, a claim fiercely disputed by Operational Director Bruno Verbergt.

A few months after the opening, we take stock of the Museum’s challenges, through the perspectives of both scholars and activists on specific aspects of the reopened museum: Margot Luyckfasseel provides a bird’s-eye view of the new exhibition; Sarah Van Beurden explores the politics behind the collection; Gillian Mathys critically rethinks the historical framing of colonialism in the museum; and Tracy Tansia questions the museum’s collaboration with Afro-descendants in the renovation process.

The museum as an impartial forum?


In his foreword to the visitor’s guide of the museum, Operational Director Bruno Verbergt states the following:

The relations between Belgium and its former colony and between contemporary Europe and 21st century Africa can be perceived and discussed from many perspectives. As a scientific institution, committed to research and the spread of knowledge, the Royal Museum of Central Africa wants to be a forum, where diverging visions and ideas can prosper and find each other, in order to contribute to a more profound and more multifaceted image of Africa in the world.

The statement presents the museum as a forum, as an impartial and inviting environment in which different voices and opinions can interact and compete with each other on equal terms. It emanates a sense of neutrality. Such a framing of the AfricaMuseum is problematic for two reasons: First, the supposed desirability of the museum as an impartial forum is highly debatable: in structures of social and cultural inequality, neutrality always favors the strong. Secondly, assuming that it is desirable, the question remains whether its execution is an achievable goal, given the museum’s specific history.

A famous quote by Angela Davis says: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” The same might hold true for the renewed AfricaMuseum. Is it enough to construct a “forum” where diverging visions and ideas meet in a place built to propagate a colonial project whose money it was built with? Can the suffering of the victims of colonization and the contemporary struggles of people of African descent be adequately voiced in a building where Leopold’s initials occur 45 times? Can the coevalness of contemporary African lives be shown in a site that was designed to do the contrary?

If it can, it can only do so if priorities are made. A tour through the still unfinished museum provides an idea of the urgencies that have been addressed. Some rooms are completed, while others are still under construction. Director Guido Gryseels claimed in his inaugural speech that the reopening of the museum is merely the start of a never-ending decolonization process. However, the priorities made are an indication to look beyond what Verbergt calls “the narrative strategies” used to decolonize the museum.

The visitor enters through a new welcome pavilion, complete with a shiny shop and restaurant, is led through a long hall with an auditorium and expo hall, to finally arrive in the introduction gallery. Here, statues that used to occupy a prominent place in the former museum are assembled behind a fence. A sign indicates that they “no longer belong” in the permanent exhibition. Only the notorious statue of the Anyoto leopard man is afforded background information on a touch screen. A visitor comments: “These statues are problematic, so it seems, but why?” A mother asks her child: “Do you see the claws of the leopard man?”

The tour continues, if one follows the museum map, with the room about language and music. Interestingly, visitors can analyze verbal constructions in Bantu languages or scroll through the Kiswahili Wikipedia page on Kiholanzi (Dutch), Kifaransa (French), Kiingereza (English) and Kijerumani (German). It is one of the few elements in the museum that inverts the gaze, Africa talking about Europe. The visitor then arrives in the smaller Afropea room, which is dedicated to the diaspora and leaves a cluttered impression. Next to it one can see the temporary exhibition Unrivalled Art, which presents masks, without much historical contextualization as to how and under what conditions of inequality they were obtained, apart from a laconic sign saying: “Due to the specific history of the museum, most of the pieces come from Congo”. It is hard to think of a sentence that describes the colonial nature of the collection in a more detached, uninformative, cautious, in fact neutral, way. Small, yet voluminous, guide books are available but the average visitor does not pay attention to them. As a consequence, the exhibit is reminiscent of the former museum’s methods of displaying.

After crossing a specimen of the robot designed by a young female Congolese entrepreneur to guide traffic in several Congolese cities, the visitor walks through the rooms dedicated to landscape, biodiversity, resources, minerals and the so-called crocodile room, which occupy the largest area. Connected to the resources room is a room about colonial imagery, including a projection area which is not yet operational two months after the opening. Then follows the chronologically installed exhibition dedicated to colonial history and independence, which the visitor oddly enters at the side about independence. Finally, the last rooms in the tour are about a more remote “pre-colonial” history, and rituals and ceremonies. In the cellar, one finds the project AfricaTube, designed by young volunteers, many of them from the diaspora, which deals with African internet experiences. The room, still in scaffolds two months after the new museum’s opening, is so well hidden that visitors are often unaware of its existence.

The effort to decolonize, repeatedly acclaimed in the Directors’ discourses, is not only hard to reconcile with the idea of the museum as an impartial forum, it is also too invisible in practice. The integration of work by contemporary Congolese artists is an illustration of that same principle. If their work is not capable of negating the effects of colonial propaganda engrained in the building it is not because their work is not strong enough, but because there are not enough efforts to physically “decolonize” the building. The museum building is indeed protected heritage, which complicates such attempts, and which is why some voices argue that the building should serve as a museum of Western and Belgian colonization of Africa, including its propaganda apparatus, its daily practices, and its ways of representation, instead of as a museum of Africa.

Key rooms, like the one about diaspora, colonial history and independence, colonial imagery and AfricaTube do not receive the attention they deserve. This becomes clear from the sheer space proportions (see map) and the seeming lack of priority of their completion. In many instances throughout the museum, “decolonization,” if at all present, is a mere afterthought, an aside for those who might be interested.

Museum renovation and the politics of collection and possession


In the months leading up to the reopening of the “AfricaMuseum” in Tervuren, Belgium, the debate about restitution took off in full force. French President Macron’s speech on the subject in Ouagadougou and the subsequent French report, as well as stirrings around the building of a new museum in Berlin, and the impeding reopening of the Tervuren museum all fanned the fire of a debate that has been going since the era of African independence. The African diaspora community in Belgium successfully called attention to the subject in the media, and a range of voices—from supportive to highly critical—soon chimed in. This renewed debate raised the expectations about the reinstallation of the museum. Would it address the thorny issue of collection histories?

The debates have had a mixed impact on the reopening of the museum. On the one hand, the pressure exerted by the public debate in Belgium (and particularly by the diaspora) has led to tentative but evolving public declarations by both the museum director and government officials in favor of a dialogue about restitution. On the other hand, however, the message on colonial collecting and the transparency with regard to the origins of the collection in the reopened museum is ambiguous. In one respect, the museum has made great strides in dealing with its own past and that of its collections in the form of a new room devoted to the history of the museum, with the inclusion of a cluster of displays on the origins of the collections. While an excellent idea, the execution has been less effective. In this new room, the museum is contextualized as a “museum in motion”; one that evolved “From a colonial institution into a scientific reference center” that is a protector of the “heritage of humankind.” The implied neutrality of the latter is deceiving, of course, and it is a reflection of the broader lack of consciousness around the processes and biases of the creation of knowledge that characterizes the museum’s displays at large. It is the historical process that determines HOW we come to think of things in certain ways that needs to be exposed.

The text accompanying the displays in the room on collection history recognizes that the museum collection’s history is intertwined with its colonial history: “from the beginning military, colonial officers, missionaries, traders and scientists were encouraged to collect objects in Congo,” the visitor is told. While that is certainly true, the term “collecting” covers a wide base of actions here, including those of a violent nature, and a context of deep inequality, none of which is really addressed here. Display cases only document a couple of examples: the collecting activities of missionary Gustaaf Hulstaert and Congo Free State officer Charles Lemaire, the example of the expedition of Armand Hutereau (1911-13), donations in the form of the Stanley collection (consisting of personal effects and objects gathered in Congo, his archives, etc.) and the more recent acquisition of Bogumil Jewsiewicki’s collection of popular paintings. A display case on Joseph Seha, a collector of African art in the 1930s, serves as an example of the role private collectors and art dealers played for the museum. What is missing here, is a reflection on the conditions in which Congolese objects were removed—an acknowledgement of the inequalities—and at times, violence—that characterized colonial collecting. Military expeditions and “scientific” collecting—particularly in the era of Lemaire—often went hand in hand.

There are three other locations in the museum that are of immediate relevance to the issues of collection and possession. The first is the exhibition in the room “Rituals and Ceremonies” (that essentially replaces the older ethnographic displays), which provides some historical depth to the history of the colonial collection, with background information about the “social life” and provenance of a number of the objects. Two of the Tabwa statues used are explicitly defined as the spoils of war of Émile Storms, in both the contextual presentation as in the label. The same approach is repeated in the displays in the history room, where Lusinga’s statue—taken, along with the chief’s skull, by Storms—is used to illustrate the history of the colonial conquest.

The third location in the new museum of relevance to this discussion is the room “Unrivalled Art,” which contains a more old-fashioned display of objects as masterpieces. It contains a controversial piece, the nkisi nkondi associated with Alex Delcommune. Research by one of the museum’s own employees, Maarten Couttenier, has documented the controversial way in which the object was obtained. Unlike Storms’ objects, however, there is no mention of this in the displays, where the object is described as “collected by Alex Delcommune” without any contextualization. The guidebook that accompanies the exhibition in the room hints at the rich history of the statue, but employs a deceptively neutral language and omits current-day Congolese claims on the statue.

This lack of a unified institutional approach to the issue of collection history, and the way this is reflected in varied label-writing and presentation practices, stands in contrast with the public declarations of the museum and Belgian government representatives with regard to provenance research and restitution. There is no acknowledgement whatsoever throughout the museum, that the possession of some of these objects is under debate (and has been for a long time), which represents a missed opportunity to bring the contemporary role of the colonial past to the fore for the visitors.

Colonial continuities: Tensions and opportunities


The museum has one room where it addresses Belgium’s colonial past, the “Colonial history and independence room.” That it is one of the smaller rooms in the museum is a questionable choice, especially because the colonial present is ever-present in the museum, and because Belgian Afro-descendants have been reviving fierce debates about Belgium’s (colonial) past in Central Africa. They have criticized the limited knowledge about this colonial pastand have asked recognition for the ways this colonial past shapes and influences the present. The Collectif Mémoire Colonial, for example, is continually active in this regard. As elsewhere in the museum, the “colonial history” room fails to convincingly explain relationships between the colonial past and present; and only superficially addresses the role of the museum in shaping ideas about (central) Africa.

The room is dominated by a gigantic wall-painting depicting the Découvertes Géographiques Fondamentales (Fundamental Geographical Discoveries—see picture). Such images contributed to ideas about Congo—or Africa in general—having been “discovered” by Europeans, denying Africa a past before European presence. Unfortunately, there is no context provided to explain to visitors the importance of such imaginaries of Africa, even though a video screen facing the map guides the visitor through different historical maps about Africa. Ironically, in the adjacent room on “Representation,” the museum tries to tackle the influence of colonial representation on images of Africa, but does not emphasize the role of the building itself in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes about Congo/Africa.

The current setup of the museum in general implicitly conveys another “colonial” idea about African history: that it only starts from the moment Europeans became involved. Or in other words: the African past before the slave trade is the terrain of archeology (and some anthropology), but not of history. Exception to this rule in the museum is the Kongo Kingdom, but deeper histories of other (central) African societies, are largely absent in the museum.

The display at the entrance of the “colonial room” gives the impression that it will address Congo as well as Rwanda and Burundi. However, the latter two—formerly mandated areas of Belgium—are relatively absent in the exhibition, which focuses mainly on Congo. This is the replication of a more generalized problem with the museum: while the name AfricaMuseum implies otherwise, the museum only really engages with Central Africa, and predominantly with Congo. Given the historical and ecological specificities of this region, and the great overall diversity of the African content, the name is problematic.

The text on the display is ambiguous as well. It states that the colonial period was “relatively short,” but “decisive for the evolution of postcolonial society in the three countries, and in shaping their image in Belgium.” However, in the room itself, such links are not explicitly made. For example, the displays in the room mention the economic exploitation of Congo by enterprises in complicity with the state, and the heavy human toll of the (forced) labor system. However, no companies are named, even if Umicore, a global company owes part of its success to this kind of exploitation by its predecessor Union Minière de Haut Katanga (UMHK). That many leading global companies have made part of their fortune and success on the backs of colonial subjects is a “post-colonial” continuity that could have easily been pointed out here—Umicore certainly is not the only global company having colonial roots. Cynics could think it has something to do with the fact that Umicore is listed as a partner of the museum. The absence of attention for such continuities is all the more puzzling, because the next room addresses the “Resource paradox” without reference to the colonial period.

The same signboard at the entrance of the “colonial room” reads that “[t]oday historians fundamentally agree about the reconstruction and interpretation about the colonial past, but in terms of the public debate it remains a very controversial period.” The visitor remains in the dark about what exactly historians agree on, and what are the fault lines in public debates. Does the museum want to imply that what they present is a sanctioned version of this past?

At other times the “colonial history and independence room” is complicit in conveying stereotypical ideas about post-colonial Congo. The very minimal display on the period after decolonization for example (and here examples from Rwanda and Burundi are present), mainly consists of pictures of clippings from newspaper articles. Sub-sections are titled “1960-1964: False start,” “1965-1979: Coups and dictators” and “1990-1999: Civil Wars.” This comes awfully close to certain nostalgic public discourses about Congo in Belgium, which sharply contrast a chaotic war-torn Congo with a peaceful and calm colonial past. About the involvement of Belgians in the difficult decolonization process—apart from a reference to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, which is acknowledged—and about the role of Belgium in the crises following independence, little is mentioned.

In order to hear some reflection on the role of Belgium in the decolonization debacle, the visitor needs to walk a bit further, and watch and listen to a testimony from writer Koli Jean Bofane (much less apparent than the other display) in order to understand such a depiction of the decolonization process is problematic. While the integration of Congolese voices throughout the museum is laudable and necessary—although more successful in some rooms than in other—it should not be left only to such testimonies alone to provide a “counter narrative” to the discourse of the main displays.

Lastly, neither the “Colonial history and independence” room nor the “Representation” room go beyond superficial statements about the museum’s role in the collection of data or in the way it has shaped ideas about Central Africa. Knowledge was crucial to the success of the colonial enterprise, and the museum collected and produced information that was not only consumed by the general public but was also eagerly used by the colonial administration. A general statement in the “Representation” room tells the visitor that “the [museum] has an extensive collection of colonial photographs and films […] almost exclusively made by white people and mainly show[ing] their perspective’ and that these ‘[…] determined […] the image the general public had about Central Africa and Africans.” One of the displays speaks about the “racial” and cultural criteria by which colonial subjects were classified. Yet, the role of the museum as producer of such racial “classifications” and their relationship to the colonial project through colonial anthropology is never really explained. Neither is attention paid to how such classifications continue to influence and shape the present, in Central Africa as well as in Belgium.

In contrast with the museum before the renovation, the museum now explicitly denounces colonialism as a system: colonial violence, exploitation, and racism are acknowledged in the exhibitions—an important and admirable move forward. Yet, it sometimes falls short in explaining how exactly colonialism worked. What were and are the long-lasting effects? How are forms of colonial racism perpetuated today? And finally, what was the role of science and the museum in the colonial project? Part of the solution to this problem might lie in bringing down the boundaries between disciplines in the exposition. “Colonialism” is not just a part of history, it runs as a clear thread throughout the institution, the building, and its collection. Emphasizing these continuities and connections, instead of isolating “the colonial past” to a small room without making these broader connections, is an opportunity the museum needs to exploit in the future.

Changing the narratives


The museum needs to change the narrative. The narrative that the museum uses inside the walls of the museum is the same they need to use outside for the public and in practice. Decolonising also means seeing black people (people of African descent) as your equal and value their opinions regarding the direction the museum is going. The museum that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors.

The director claims that during the renovation of the museum efforts were made to include voices of the African diaspora/Congolese diaspora. Including voices is not enough. Listening to diaspora voices, and dismissing them when it does not suit sponsors, former colonial elites, or possible investors is not “decolonizing.” This tension is still at the heart of problems within the new museum. Although the museum has changed its narrative, and now publicly denounces the “racist system that was colonization” the museum still does not give the impression it is interested in informing people of African descent of their history, but is rather centered on informing white people about Africa, and on “the work” white colonizers did. The museum gives the impression that it has included the history and culture of the African diaspora without upsetting those involved in the colonial endeavor: the white colonizer.

The director of the museum reacts similarly when critics, mainly young black people, point out the lack of people of African descent working in the museum or when they talk about restitutions of stolen art. Criticism is not always valued, and the director frames this critical segment of the diaspora as “ungrateful.” The diaspora has to be happy with the small changes and thankful that their voices where somehow included. Such discourse is not only insulting, it is also paternalistic. Although people within the museum claim that the museum values criticism—both the general director and the operational director have emphasized several times that the museum is only the start of a larger dialogue—at the same time artists such as Luntumbue and Nsengiyumva are still depicted as “activists,” too “radical” to truly cooperate. This is a rhetoric device to discredit their criticism in the eyes of a (white) public opinion.

In 2003, COMRAF, an advisory committee of African associations responsible for advising the museum on its renovation, was erected. They proposed the creation of a group of critics of African descent, “the group of six,” uniting members with relevant professional expertise. Anne Wetsi Mpoma for example is an art historian, and Ayoko Mensah is an expert in African arts and cultures. Yet, in several instances, their expertise was not acknowledged—they are members of the diaspora first and foremost, rather than experts in their own right. The fact that the group of six was only erected at a late stage of the renovation process adds to the impression that its members had to validate the decisions already made rather than proposing their own ideas.

In the history of racial injustice trying to dismiss the critics from the oppressed group has been a constant trick to avoid working on a revolution; but to focus instead on step by step evolution that will not upset the oppressor that has been in a position of power and privilege. The museum cannot truly decolonize if the opinion from the diaspora is not considered. The oppressor deciding on the timing of the museum’s decolonization is another example of the fact that the museum is still a colonial institution. The diaspora will only be happy with a revolution.

About the Author

Gillian Mathys is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University, she focuses on the history of Rwanda and the eastern Congo.

Margot Luyckfasseel is a PhD student  in African Studies at Ghent University, her research focusses on language, ethnicity and power in Kinshasa.

Sarah Van Beurden is an associate professor of African Studies at the Ohio State University and author of Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture (New African Histories, Ohio University Press, 2015).

Tracy Tansia has a master in Political Sciences from Ghent University and contributed to the television series Children of the Colony in Belgium.

Further Reading

Angola’s Biennale

It is hard to find critics asking what Angolan artist Edson Chagas’s work does, the context through which it was produced, or the social conditions it draws attention to.

Africa and contemporary art

I am no contemporary art expert. Sometimes one has to start with a disclaimer. The term and whatever definition whoever gives to it have been on that awkward zone where I have felt that I …

Save the Museum (in Uganda)

Just about this time last year, Uganda lost a priceless part of its cultural heritage when the Kasubi Tombs were burnt down. The tombs were a UNESCO World Heritage Site and were built in 1882 …