Skip to content

A successful metamorphosis?

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium

The Royal Museum of Central Africa, known as the Museum of Belgian Congo at its inception in 1910, was, for a time, the last colonial museum of its kind in Europe. Belgium could have just closed it like all the other former colonial powers did with theirs. Instead they decided to confront the ghosts of their past and opted for a five-year, 70 million Euro re-modelling exercise. When the museum finally re-opened in December 2018, it was to a mixed reception. Critics implied that the challenge had not been satisfactorily met.

New breath, or Burgeoning Congo, Aimé Mpane (Kinshasa, DR Congo, °1968). Nivelles, 2017. Wood, bronze, Collection RMCA, inv. no.2017.7.1 © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

Undoubtedly, the task was an extremely difficult one. As the museum’s director, Guido Gryseels, said in an interview, “[e]ntire generations of Belgians came here and got the message that colonialism was a good thing, that we brought civilisation and welfare and culture to Congo”. The project of changing what the museum stands for has so far taken ten years. It involved the input of experts from the African diaspora, allowing them a chance to tell their side of the story. There is also an effort to show pre-colonial African history, making the point that Congo had a rich culture and history of its own, way before any colonisation took place. 

Gryseels admits that the process of ‘decolonisation’ is a slow one and is sometimes hampered by the museum building itself. For example, one of the museum’s most prominent rooms, the Rotunda, has gilded bronze sculptures embedded in niches that depict Belgium’s ‘civilising mission’ in the Congo.  Since the museum is protected by heritage laws these controversial statues cannot be removed. A solution was found by commissioning contemporary Congolese artist Aimé Mpane to produce a work to juxtapose the offending statues. His piece, entitled New Breath or Burgeoning Congo, has been placed on a pedestal in the middle of the Rotunda.

Centres fermés, rêves ouverts (installation view), Freddy Tsimba  © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver
Fauteuil Mobutu, Iviart Izamba, 2010, Collection RMCA, 2011.54.1
© RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

Belgium’s history of colonisation in the Congo River Basin starts in the latter part of the 19th century when Europe directed its imperialist expansion towards Africa. Representatives from 14 European countries attended the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 to decide how to go about colonising Africa – effectively sharing its resource-rich lands between themselves.  King Leopold II of Belgium took this as his cue to claim as his personal fiefdom an area 80 times the size of Belgium. He called it the ‘Congo Free State’ and, under a philanthropic cover, set about exploiting the country and its people. His reign of terror is reported to have been responsible for the death of up to 10 million Congolese through abuse, starvation, overwork and disease.

Leopold II used the World Fair of 1897, held in Brussels, as a propaganda tool for his Congo project. The colonial exhibition was set up at his country estate in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, and went so far as to include the deplorable staging of a ‘human zoo’.

Still, the exhibition was such a success that Leopold saw the need for a permanent museum, and set about building it with funds derived from his horrific exploits in the Congo. Eventually Leopold’s projects ran into debt and the international outcry over abuses committed became so strong that in 1908 he had to transfer authority over his colony to the Belgian government.

The Museum of Belgian Congo opened in 1910, a year after Leopold’s death, showcasing mainly the valuable resources – rubber, ivory, wood and minerals – that the colony had to offer. Over the years the collection expanded, adding artefacts, preserved samples of wildlife, and photographic material. Yet the viewpoint for presenting it always remained the white colonisers’ perspective. It was only when Gryseels became director in 2001 that the process of change began. He says that “confronting a colonial legacy in a building constructed to glorify it was an enormous challenge”.

The Crocodile Room © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

In the museum, wall texts have been cleaned of contentious words like ‘pioneers’ or ‘hut’, and the new displays highlight the colonisation’s many problems. Seeing itself as a “centre for knowledge and resources on Africa”, the museum’s focus is on education, promotion of sustainability and giving support and help where it is welcomed. Thus, the museum now markets itself as a forum for debate, which condemns colonialism as a system.

The curatorial concept of arranging the collections according to ethnographic themes is aided by the layout of the building, with the exhibition halls grouped around a central courtyard. The display starts with languages and music; covers landscapes and biodiversity; rituals and ceremonies; taking in resources; and, not least of all, history, including colonial history and independence. It genuinely makes for interesting viewing.

Before entering the main exhibition halls, the visitor passes through an introductory space with interactive displays that place the colonisation process in a critical light. Gathered in one dark side room are all the outright racist sculptures that used to be scattered throughout the museum. By putting them there, out of the way, the museum distances itself from its racist and pro-colonial past.

Another display focuses on the manner in which many of the exhibits had been obtained. The legality of acquiring the objects is often questioned – and not just by the museum itself. After the opening of the Africa Museum, the DRof Congo demanded the restitution of the art works that were appropriated by Belgium. A visit to the Africa Museum throws up many questions. Could the condemnation have been more pronounced? Does it have to be more pronounced? Do we need to look at pictures of atrocities to be able to condemn them?  Doesn’t the history of the place speak for itself?

On the walls of the tunnel that connects the visitor centre to the main museum, the following quote is written in six languages: “Everything passes – except the past”. Therefore, as we cannot change what has passed, shall we let this museum be what in the German language is so aptly called a Mahnmal – best translated as ‘a warning from history’? It is never easy to confront the bitter truth of one’s past, once it is known to all. What can make a difference though, is trying to make amends. Despite all the criticism the museum still receives, it can be posited that the Belgian Africa Museum is on the right path to a successful metamorphosis, if it can change the way its visitors perceive this difficult legacy of humanity.

More Art


The Crow Flies

We speak to the man behind the visual art of Radiohead, STANLEY DONWOOD, about his collaboration wit...



Rebecca Bonaci first solo exhibition, exploring and celebrating contemporary motherhood...