A notice proclaims that research into provenance is now one of the aims of this museum, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Brussels. This acknowledges that at the core of this collection are objects looted by imperialist aggressors under King Leopold II of Belgium in the 19th century, the heyday of European exploitation in Central Africa. He gained so much wealth from the ivory and rubber of the Congo and so many cultural artefacts, that he built this palace in Tervuren to exhibit them.
Since they were acquired, Belgium has gone through various phases in attitudes to Africans and African cultures but, when I first saw this museum some decades ago, the items were stacked in cramped display cases, without sufficient labelling. Many of the African masks and figurines must have been used as the central attraction of performance and communal dance, so the effect of crowding them together, mixing up items from different cultures, was somewhat overwhelming. When my daughter saw them for the first time in that crammed format she said it felt suffocating, like an overcrowded hell of alien beings.
Brought up to date
Now the museum has been refurbished, with an additional wing added on, and opened in 2018. On the opposite side to Leopold’s palace, it consists of upper floors with huge glass sides (the ‘welcome suite’) and the lower ground floor, with plain white walls for the sparse but well labelled exhibits. Being hungry after the 90-minute tram ride from central Brussels, I first went upstairs to the glassy restaurant to read the guide book while I had coffee and a chocolate crêpe – yum!
The (Belgian) King’s canoe
Then downstairs to the first exhibit, the huge long canoe (20m long) which was made by locals for the visit of the Belgian King: a good reminder of the mighty Congo river, and that most of the cultures of the region are riverine and amid tropical forests. The route around the museum starts on this floor where ‘the museum in motion’ is described and visible:
“our objective [is] to become a contemporary museum about present-day Africa, while including critical reflections on our colonial past … the renovated museum has a contemporary story to tell concerning themes such as language and music, biodiversity and landscapes, the abundance of natural resources (and the paradox this engenders), rituals and ceremonies, minerals, and Central Africa’s long history, including its colonial past.”Museum guide book
Some older exhibits removed
This means that some objects from older displays have been demoted. For example, the entrance to the old museum used to exhibit life-size statues of muscular Black males, in various poses of aggression or suppression, rather good nude statuary in the European style inherited from Olympian Greeks, but not at all how Africans sculpt or depict themselves. These have now been shoved together in a back room along with some colonial heads, thus acknowledging the current shame at the colonial heritage, and at this stereotyping of African males (no females among them … apparently the Empire was masculine!).
Influence of African art
I then went upstairs to the various rooms in Leopold’s palace where African masks and figurines are on display. To be fair to the Belgians of Leopold’s time, some of the loot was recognised as art, and exhibited as such. It is well acknowledged that African art, especially the masks, influenced Cubism and Picasso.
But for the 1897 World exhibition, some 297 Africans were brought over to be on show in three ‘villages’ – a kind of human zoo. Just as an animal exhibited in a zoo gives minimal understanding of its full life and role in its environment, so these Africans on show were brought for entertainment, not for any understanding of the exploitative politics going on in their home country.
Displays of Central Africa’s natural resources
The museum actually does have several large rooms about the environment of Central Africa: the animals, butterflies, timber, and minerals. The timber ‘library’ has unique, well-labelled rows showing the grain of tropical wood. Similarly, the mineral cases are well labelled displays of chunks of raw gold, copper, coltan etc. But these displays need bringing up to date – with maps of where these are mined and processed this decade. There is nothing that explains the ‘resource curse’ of Congo, rich resources that do not benefit the local people, but cause violent clashes or sweated labour.
However, there is now more audio appeal in the rooms about culture. There is a press-button game to test if you can hear the tonal variation that is essential to the local language. There are videos of ceremonial dances complete with the sounds of the traditional instruments (drums, xylophones, mbira etc).
A new exhibition
An entirely new exhibition is about the heritage of black and mixed-race families now living in Belgium. As in other imperial countries in a racist era, the children born to African mothers and white fathers were not accepted in white society. For some decades, they were taken away from their mothers and placed in orphanages, run by religious communities in areas far from their homes.
When independence loomed in 1959, the authorities were afraid these ‘Métis’ could become rebels (as had happened in Canada at Red River), so they shipped 1,000 of them to Belgium, getting them adopted by white families if possible. This meant they lost touch with their African mothers, siblings and cousins. In effect, they had been kidnapped – the same process for which Russia is now being indicted for human rights violation.
However, these Belgian Métis gradually gained political visibility
“This topic was taboo for a very long time. As Métis ourselves, we didn’t talk about it together. Instead we did our best to create our lives in Belgium without causing much stir. But it’s only after we began to have a family of our own that our children started asking us questions, ‘Who is your mother? Who is your dad? Where are they from?’ But most people didn’t have an answer.”François Milliex, director of the Belgian Association of Métis
Eventually in 2019 they were offered a formal apology in the Belgian Federal Parliament.
The Exhibition room about the family heritage of Afro-Belgians is still work in progress, with family records still being collected.
The situation in the United Kingdom
In the UK, the heritage of Black Britons has been better publicised in the last two decades, with museums in Liverpool and London Docklands, and Black History Month widely followed in many schools. Just as the African heritage of Belgians cannot be explained without considering the horrors of Congo under King Leopold II, so Black History in the UK demands owning up to slave-trading.
There has been much progress in recent years in exposing who profited from this, including many of the owners of big country houses now under the National Trust, and local philanthropists like Edward Colston in Bristol and Scott, founder of the Manchester Guardian.
There is now a more ambitious project for a museum focused on Black British History: initially an online collection with the project of eventually getting physical space. As they proclaim:
“We need to tell our stories and have the freedom to express our own narratives or other people will tell them for us. The ‘Black British’ Museum Project is expertise to build a physical museum space. Future generations need to see the relevance of their history, ancestral labour, and heritage in the making of Great Britain. A museum experience that truly values and celebrates the contributions of Black People, a museum of living memory where we can all learn from the past to build a better future.”
With regard to the Royal Museum of Central Africa at Tervuren, in comparison with how Britain exhibits Black Heritage, it can be noted that although the UK has looted artifacts in mainstream museums (Benin bronzes in the British Museum, for example), Black British are further ahead with promoting their own heritage projects. But there are gradients of cultural acceptance and integration.
One could say that the Benin bronzes’ location in the British museum show how highly they are valued as world heritage. One could also praise the efforts of Black activists to get their own museum. But also there is much to be said for quietly inserting Black perspectives in mainstream museums, thus normalising integration.
Example of this is to be found currently in the Margate Turner Gallery, where ‘Feeling her Way’ by Sonia Boyce (an artist of Black heritage) combines visual effects with improvised singing (it won the Golden Lion in the Venice Biennial 2022). There is also an exhibition wall by Sabina Desir, displaying newspaper discussion about the Black American military posted near Margate in the 1950s, exploring pro and anti attitudes. All this, in a museum whose name honours a great British artist, and in whose book shop and children’s learning centre, the diversity of human creativity is celebrated.