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Museum takes new look at Belgium’s colonial past

World | 2018-12-06 08:11:00
Museum takes new look at Belgium’s colonial past
For decades, Belgian schoolchildren had come to the Africa Museum near Brussels to marvel at the stuffed animals, drums, ritual masks and minerals that glowed in the darkness of vast cellars. Old imperialists lounged for languid lunches, reminiscing about their glorious past. Out of sight was the dark side of colonialism in Belgian Congo the killings, the sepia photos of Congolese whose hands had been hacked off out of petty retribution.

No more. The museum, long called the world’s last colonial museum, is reopening Saturday after more than 10 years spent revamping the building and overhauling its dated, one-sided approach to history.

It’s proved a huge challenge for director Guido Gryseels, who has had to place Belgium’s manifold imperial abuses in a museum built by the chief perpetrator of those horrors for his own glory. Making matters worse, the culprit was Leopold II, king of the Belgians, whose dark legacy has long been shielded from full scrutiny.

With the museum’s reopening, “we provide the critical view of the colonial past,” Gryseels said in an interview. “We try to provide the Africa view of colonization.”

A Congolese artist’s statue is given a prominent place in the new exhibition space, while many statues representing the most denigrating, cliched views of the Congolese have been rounded up and placed into a windowless room.

The palatial 1910 museum is a still protected monument. Erasing all the fingerprints of Leopold II and his perfidious glorification of colonialism was never an option. Leopold’s double-L anagram is still plastered on walls and ceilings as the defiant stamp of a bygone era, and gold-lettered panels still lionize “Belgium offering civilization to Congo.”

Gryseels maintains that history has its place, but he says he’s not an apologist for colonialism or Belgium’s suppression of Congo.

“It’s immoral,” he said amid crates, ladders and protective foil during the final stages of renovation. “It’s based on the military occupation of a country. It’s based on racism. It is based on the exploitation of resources.”

The question is whether the museum’s changes are enough to please a more assertive generation of Africans.

“I must say that, in recent years, the dialogue has become more difficult,” Gryseels admitted. “The younger generations are far more militant. What they say is, ‘The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.’”

Leopold’s ruthless 1885-1908 rule over Congo was notorious for its brutality when the Congo Free State was his personal fiefdom.

American writer Adam Hochschild alleged in his 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” that Leopold reigned over the mass death of 10 million Congolese. Belgian Congo provided setting for “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad’s novella on colonial exploitation.

After Leopold handed over Congo to the Belgian state, the tiny nation continued to hold sway over an area 80 times its size half a world away, until independence in 1960.

Imperialists have long regarded the museum as a haven of nostalgia.

“For them, this is their home,” Gryseels said, “and they are very nostalgic about this place.” They see Belgium’s role in Congo as benign building roads, providing health care, spreading Christianity and giving Congo a standard of living few others in Africa had at the time. “They’re a bit disappointed,” Gryseels said, “about the critical view.”

It would be incorrect to assume that all Africans were repulsed by the old museum.

When Congolese-born Aime Enkobo moved to Brussels and wanted to show his children his heritage, he came to the Africa Museum.

“For me it was to show them our culture,” Enkobo said. “What artists did, created, the aesthetics, to explain that. It is what interested me. It was not the images that showed that whites were superior to blacks. ... My kids asked me no questions on that.”

Still, controversy is increasingly commonplace, and it has come from Belgians as well as the Congolese diaspora here.

Critics have increasingly questioned street names honoring colonialists, and statues have been given explanatory plaques highlighting the death and destruction imperialism spawned.

A sculpture of Leopold II has had its bronze hand chopped off, and another was targeted with rude graffiti last year.

A lot of work is left.

“You won’t find a town or city in Belgium where you don’t have a colonial street name, monument or plaque,” activist and historian Jean-Pierre Laus said. “It is everywhere.”

He was key in getting one of the first explanatory plaques next to a Leopold statue in the town of Halle, just south of Brussels, almost a decade ago. Instead of glorifying the monarch, it now reads: “The rubber and ivory trade, which was largely controlled by the King, took a heavy toll on Congolese lives.”

Instead of damaging or destroying statues, Enkobo has created a new one, right in the main hall of the new Africa Museum. It is a huge wooden lattice profile of a Congolese man, looking proudly, perhaps defiantly, at the condescending colonial statues all around him.

“I didn’t want to respond to the negative with something negative,” the artist said in his studio. “It is easy to destroy, but have we thought of the others and history? It is interesting to leave traces.”

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