Decolonizing the museum
How should Belgium's Africa Museum address its colonial past?
Since reopening in December 2018, after five years of renovations, Belgium’s Central-Africa museum has again sparked controversy. Internationally and domestically, critics have pointed out how the collection is still largely based on stolen art work, which is especially striking given recent actions in neighboring France to return stolen art.
Another major criticism relates to how the museum has dealt with Belgium’s colonial past. This has most recently arisen with the visit of a UN working group, which criticized the museum for perpetuating racist imagery. Interestingly, this criticism also reveals that there are diverging opinions on how to deal with colonial propaganda works, even from a shared perspective of decolonization. While some argue that all works need to be removed, others say that such images should be maintained, and explained, to confront visitors with the colonial past and its legacies.
Belgium’s Africa museum was established in 1897 under the auspices of Leopold II to glorify his, and later Belgium’s “civilizing mission” in Congo. The collection consisted of masks and other artifacts collected during often brutal expeditions in the Congo, a large collection of taxidermized animals, and statues depicting black Africans as wicked and barbarian with white colonizers as welcomed saviors. Until 2013, the collection and museum lay-out had largely remained unchanged.
After the renovation, many offensive statues appear together in a separate room within the museum, with the notification that they are no longer part of the actual collection. Others are an integral part of the museum building. These are kept in place, yet are accompanied by a short text explaining their history. The museum also has a thematic area documenting Belgian’s colonial history as well as its colonial propaganda.
The renovated Africa museum hence certainly displays racist imagery. There is little discussion on this matter. The question to ask is whether the purpose of decolonization is best fulfilled by removing these depictions or keeping them in place with—certainly better— contextualization. For instance, while many statues have been taken out of the collection, it is not clear why they are continuing to be displayed separately. If sufficient explanation were provided, there would perhaps be no reason to exclude them from the exhibition as such. Furthermore, colonial propaganda images (posters, articles, drawings), which are part of the collection, are now only visible if one opens drawers in which they are stored, risking the impression that one can forget about the country’s colonial history by hiding it away.
There is a need to actually offer colonial propaganda works a more prominent place in the museum, to highlight how Belgians depicted and treated black Africans in the colonial past, and to alert new generations to the dehumanization of fellow men and women. The same objectives lie behind many museums documenting the treatment of Jews in Nazi-Germany. This position on decolonizing the museum differs from that of the UN expert group, which argued that all racist imagery should be removed.
The UN group’s view also deserves reflection, in particular with regard to the wider societal context in which the museum operates. A strategy in which colonial propaganda is presented as a lesson may simply not work when racism and racist imagery have not yet sufficiently been discredited by public policies and wider societal norms. Perhaps the current milieu in Belgium is like that. If that is the case then the purpose of decolonization may be best served by removing all propaganda images from the museum.
How best to practice decolonization in this matter is a debate worth having, especially with Belgians of African descent, who are ultimately in the best position to assess contemporary racial relations in the country. For the current exhibition the museum has cooperated extensively with diaspora communities to bring their stories to the fore. It has also bought and commissioned works from African artists. The extent to which the presentation of colonial propaganda material is the result of a similar consultative process is less clear, however, as the museum does not make note of this in the exhibition.
The debate on how to address Belgium’s colonial past is not restricted to the Africa museum. Statues of Leopold II are still present in public spaces and the names of many streets and squares continue to be reminiscent of the colonial period. While certain municipalities have recently taken actions of redress, discussions on the colonial past only surface occasionally. Nevertheless, a consistent and widely accepted approach requires a transparent and public debate with all societal stakeholders.