The Royal Museum of Central Africa, renamed the Africa Museum, has been standing in Tervuren for over a century. 125 years to be precise. Having started as a colonial exhibition of King Leopold II, the museum has gone through major changes over the past years, reopening in 2018 after a 5-year renovation process aimed at decolonising the exhibitions.
1. The beginning
The story of the museum starts in 1897, when Congo was still the personal property of King Leopold II. Among the museum’s exhibits today is an inscribed piece of marble, allegedly taken from Athens’ Parthenon. Dated 1860, the inscription reads “Belgium must have a colony”. Leopold II’s vision of what Belgium should look like was already clearly formed and the beginning of the Africa Museum played into that vision.
He wanted to create a colonial section of the 1897 World Expo in Brussels. It served as a propaganda tool for his colonial project, complete with the African village set up in the park, where Congolese men and women were ‘exhibited’. In 1898, the temporary exhibition became the first permanent museum of Congo.
“It’s 125 years ago that Leopold II started an exhibition about his colonial project. So it’s 125 years ago that this museum had its start, originally as a colonial project. It had to show and it had to impress … it was propaganda for a colonial project”, Managing Director of the museum, Bart Ouvry, told Travel Tomorrow in an interview.
2. Double anniversary
This year also marks the 5-year anniversary of the museum’s reopening. “With the reopening, we really started a change in our way of thinking and we made a major effort decolonising the museum”, Ouvry explained.
The original palatial buildings were complemented by a glass annex, which now serves as entrance. An underground corridor connects the glass annex with the original building. Leading the way to the exhibition halls, the words “Everything passes, except the past” are written on the corridor’s walls.
“I think that is important – yes, we have a past, but we have to come to terms with that”, the director emphasised. “We can probably do better about our colonial past, this will evolve. Over the last five years we have already changed the approach of some of the rooms, for example the rotunda. We’ve adapted the exhibitions based on the reactions we got from the diaspora, from Africans, from Congolese, from Burundians and other nationalities coming here.”
Decolonising the museum is a process, it’s not something which is done from a certain point and then you go on, it’s a constant process.Bart Ouvry, Managing Director Africa Museum
The most important part of this process is ensuring everyone has a say. “We want to be an institution about Africa, which works with Africans. In our work as a museum, we want to co-create right from the start of our projects, we want to involve African people”, Ouvry explained, highlighting that the museum should have a more universalist approach than just the viewpoint of Europeans on Africans.
“Our museum today has a function in society, an educational function, and it is part of the debate. We should not necessarily be the ones leading the debate, but we should give a secure space for everyone who is involved in the debate: Belgians, Congolese, Europeans and Africans”, Ouvry went on. “Brussels is the capital of Europe, there is quite an international community here, so we want to involve them as well.”
Sometimes we can play a role in the debate, but our main role is to bring everyone together and to contribute to a cohesive society.Bart Ouvry, Managing Director Africa Museum
Playing an important part in the museum’s societal function is also its role as a scientific institution. From the beginning, the museum doubled as a scientific institute and today it continues to foster research not just in cultural anthropology and history, but also in the biodiversity of Africa, sustainable management of natural resources, human impact on ecosystems, geodynamics and natural resources, among others. Currently, in the rotunda, visitors can learn about the research being carried at the museum on several species of fruit flies, hover flies and snails.
“We have a very intense cooperation with African scientists. There are usually about 80 to 90 African scientists doing their PhD with the museum. Many of them are based in Africa, but they come here regularly and we work with them. I think that is really one of our major roles, preparing African scientists to take up their role in society, whether it’s in human sciences or biology or geology. I think that’s a major role because if you want to foster economic growth, if you want to prepare African countries for the future, one of the main ways to do that is to improve education and there we really have a role, in scientific education and in improving the know-how and the capacities of not just individual scientists but also of scientific institutions.”
3. 125/5 agenda
The ‘125/5 years’ project wants to take a critical look at colonial history and discuss the institution’s evolution, what role it played in the past, what it is doing today and what role it will play in the future.
Starting in May this year, the Africa Museum has been organising activities on its premises as well as in other locations across Belgium. The agenda includes exhibitions by African artists, workshops on decolonisation, lectures, fashion shows, literary circles and guided tours, as well as educational activities especially created for children.