Brutality on display as Belgium confronts its heart of darkness
The reopening of colonial museum may not be enough, as the DRC president demands the repatriation of artefacts
For more than a century, Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has stood as a monument to some of the worst excesses of colonial plunder.
But Belgium took a step towards confronting its brutal history in the Congo on Saturday when the museum opened to visitors for the first time in five years, after a 10-year “decolonisation” project.
King Leopold II of the Belgians ruled the Congo Free State as an absolute monarch in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pillaging it of rubber and minerals and overseeing a genocide that killed as many as 15 million people.
Packed to the brim with more than 180,000 looted items, including the beheaded skulls of tribal chiefs, and more than 500 stuffed animals slaughtered by hunters, the museum celebrated the exploits of the Belgians who turned a huge swathe of Africa into a slave state.
The £67m reopening of the palatial 1910 building in the Brussels suburb of Teuveren was supposed to shift the emphasis, with African artists invited to display their work in an effort to modernise and detoxify the museum built by Leopold.
But the reopening risks being overshadowed by a demand from Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for the repatriation of its artefacts. The museum said it would consider the request.
Kabila, whose demand follows Emmanuel Macron’s promise to return colonial-era African artefacts held in France, told the Le Soir newspaper he wanted art and documents for a new museum in the DRC, which is being built with financial help from the government of South Korea.
Guido Gryseels, the museum director, has been on a decade-long quest to move the focus of the museum.
The king’s brutal regime, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, lasted from 1885 to 1908 before, under huge international pressure, the Belgian government took the region out of royal hands.
The Belgian Congo, which includes all of the present day DRC, gained independence in 1960.
“The museum was frozen in time for many years,” Gryseels told The Brussels Times. “When I took over 17 years ago, the permanent exhibition hadn’t changed since the 1950s. That made us the last colonial museum in the world. We were essentially a propaganda institution for the government’s colonial policy.”
In a sign of continued sensitivity over the issue, King Philippe did not attend Saturday’s opening. A palace official said the monarch only attended events where there was “consensus”.
The work of a Congolese artist is given pride of place in the museum as it strives to present a more contemporary view, while offensive statues are displayed in a windowless room.
But it is impossible to totally exorcise the ghost of Leopold, whose monogram dots the walls of the museum.
Among the most popular exhibits in its early days was a “human zoo” of 267 Congolese people. Now, a plaque has finally been erected in memory of seven of them who died from exposure after being forced to wear traditional clothing.
– © The Sunday Telegraph