Behind the Scenes at the Museum

The newly modernised Central African Museum at Teruvren does not do away with the old, nor does it resolve the question of what purpose an African museum serves in Europe, today. Instead, those visiting when it re-opens will be confronted with the uneasy relationship between past and present that Tervuren will always embody - and with the lingering presence of King Leopold’s ghost. 


Brussels, Belgium - As he walks through the building site that is Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in his plastic hardhat and reinforced boots, director Guido Gryseels lets out the occasional cry of surprise. “Ah - the elephant! I didn’t know he was back.” His words echo off the soaring walls, some painted ceiling to floor with vast maps of Africa - their place names, from “German East Africa” to “Leopoldville” trapping them in a brief moment in history. Next to one, above a doorway, a painted quote attributed to the museum’s founding father, the Belgian King Leopold II, reads: “For a people who love justice, a colonizing mission can only be a mission of high civilisation”.

In other rooms, painted frescoes of African villages and forests have been carefully restored, but beneath them many of the display cabinets remain empty or shrouded in dust cloths - for now. The Royal Central African Museum is three years into a painstaking modernisation project that Gryseels hopes will turn it from a colonial relic into a world-class museum of Africa when it reopens later this year - and finally exorcise some of its lingering ghosts.

“In the past we were often labelled as the last colonial museum in the world;” Gryseels explains, reaching the administrative building whose entrance contains a softly-lit architectural model. “We want to become the Africa museum of today, we want to bring a much more critical view of that colonial past - but it is very difficult”.

To some it might even be impossible, for Belgium’s Royal Central African museum was born of an original sin: King Leopold II’s brutal colonisation of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a short period of wild exploitation and intense rubber harvesting that cost the lives of some ten million Congolese, worked to death under a system of violent slavery.


Belgium’s brutal colonial past

The “Congo Free State” was Leopold’s personal colony, and he had struggled to sell the concept to his Belgian subjects at home - a task made no easier by the powerful advocacy of international abolitionists like Mark Twain who penned King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a scathing satire of its butchery in which he wrote: “It is a land of graves; it is The Land of Graves; it is the Congo Free Graveyard.” These accusations, terrifyingly true, flew in the face of Leopold’s claims, that Belgium had a moral responsibility to save the Congolese from “Arab slavery”, and to bring civilisation to Africa - presenting Belgium colonialism itself as a benevolent, humanitarian mission.

Coinciding with the most extreme period of violence inflicted on the Congolese by Leopold’s agents, the Brussels International Exhibition of 1897 marked the high point of an equally animated propaganda campaign at home. Anxious to showcase the spoils of his proxy adventures, Leopold had a “Colonial Palace” built especially in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, with elaborate sets and scenes designed by famous architects to display a plethora of produce, musical instruments, sculpture and taxidermy.

Yet these presentations were overshadowed by the perverse exhibition unfurling in the palace’s impeccably landscaped gardens, where almost 300 predominantly Mayombe, Bangala and Basoko men, women and children had been brought directly from Congo, to live around Tervuren’s canals and lakes, exposed to the gawking crowds and the cold, Northern European climate.

Twelve died soon after arriving. Those who survived were put on display in three reproductions of “traditional” Congolese villages, which were to sit in contrast to a fourth: the “civilised village” of Gijzegem, where children who had been taken to Belgium in previous years for religious schooling were supposed to perform the virtues of Belgians’ “civilising” mission in Congo, alongside African foot soldiers of the Force Publique gendarmerie. “It is a legacy that is still, for us, greatly disturbing”, affirms the Congolese historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, speaking from the University of North Carolina, USA, where he has written extensively about Belgian colonialism and Congolese history.

Nonetheless, despite some negative press, the fair was mostly a success with the Belgian public, visited by a third of the population. Catering both to his enthusiastic audience and his own legacy, Leopold decided to turn his colonial exhibition into a permanent fixture: a grandiose, purpose-built complex was designed at Tervuren, to later become the Museum of the Belgian Congo. In the local church, less than a kilometre away, the Congolese who had died in Tervuren were buried in a row of simple, identical graves.

Visiting many decades later, in 1995, North American journalist Adam Hochschild - whose book King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), investigated the genocide perpetuated under Leopold - found the museum almost unchanged since the day it had opened. In dark, wood-panelled galleries, tableaux of wild animals and African people shared a stage; the uniforms of Belgian explorers were carefully preserved alongside their weapons and tools under the watchful eyes of a stuffed giraffe.

“What really amazed me was what wasn’t there…”, he recalls “You’d see a rubber vine, for example, but no indication that millions of people had lost their lives as direct or indirect consequences of the forced labour system.” Tucked away in the tidy green outskirts of a city that still celebrates Leopold in numerous squares, plaques and statues, the museum had, over the years, become a museum of itself, in which an antiquated colonial fantasy was cultivated.  Compared countries like to Britain or France, there is little public discussion in Belgium of the country’s long colonial past, or the terrible role it played in shaping more recent Congolese history.

Gryseels himself grew up near Tervuren, visiting often with his parents: “I remember when I first came to the museum, from the age of five, that I was really frightened of Africa, and because that’s the image that they showed you - that they are all wild, armed with spears and very violent, as if they’d kill you - and clearly the message you got, too, was that the white man was superior to the Black man… it’s not until I started working in Africa myself that I was able to take distance from that early perception,” he says, referring to a career in agricultural development across the African continent, including fourteen years at the United Nations, before joining the museum as its director. “For most Belgian children, their first encounter with Africa is still through this museum; so if that’s the image that you present, to what extent, indeed, have you affected Belgians in their perceptions of Africa? To what extent have you contributed to the problems that we have today?” 

Even now, shrouded in plastic and bubble-wrap, the old entrance hall remains the museum’s most compelling and appalling feature - the least ambiguous display of its inherent racism. Beneath a soaring, churchlike dome, four bright gold statuettes perform a bizarre mis-en-scene, ushering visitors into the mythology of the museum with their brass plaque captions: Belgium, bringing civilisation to the Congo; Belgium, bringing well-being to the Congo; Belgium bringing security to the Congo; Belgium, bringing freedom from slavery to the Congo. Beyond them, in a rotund courtyard, a bust of Leopold II looks sideways.

The museum will not reopen until later this year, but the construction work is in its final stages, and there are frequent surprises for Gryseels as he walks around - among them, the return of Tervuren’s famous elephant statue. Moving through the galleries, he points out a specific space into which old busts and statues of Leopold will be moved. “Wherever I go as the director of the institute, the first question people ask me is: ‘How are the works going?’” says Gyrseels, “And my answer is always: ‘The works? That’s the easy bit. When I have a technical problem there’s always an engineer who can find a solution. Far more difficult is: how are we going to deal with the new exhibitions? What sort of exhibitions are we going to bring? How are we going to bring in the colonial past?’” 

One of the difficulties lies in the fact that the original structure has heritage status and cannot be demolished; “even the original plasterwork is protected” says Gryseels, pointing to the ceilings which are set with the LL insignia of the museum’s founding father. The architectural project itself has, for this reason, played a significant role in this attempt to re-orientate the museum: an entirely new building has been constructed, facing the old, which it reflects distortedly in its all-glass walls. The new entrance to the museum provides a different tone; a gift shop and a cafe, with scenic views of the gardens, show the way; and a subterranean passage leads from the new structure to the pre-existing vaults and, eventually, right up into the atrium of the original museum. The colonial propaganda of old remains, but the museum director promises it will be reframed and contextualised.

For Dr. Kimberley Keith, an African-American curator and museum sociologist: “Arguably, there can be a museum about anything anywhere; but it’s always about the position of who is delivering the information…  It’s one thing to have a rebuild of an old museum - but when you have highly problematic pieces in your collection that are part of the architecture of your space, you need to be very explicit about those pieces.” Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja is, for his part, ambiguous about the African museum’s place in the world - and in Brussels, specifically: “It’s is the result of the plunder of Congelse art and other resources which was typical of colonialism - certainly, it possesses a wealth of resources in terms of animal species and other wildlife, in terms of African art, and regarding archaeological and mineral research on the various regions of the Congo, but most importantly they have to recognise that they have plundered these things; and that these things belong to Africa.” For now, Nzongola-Ntalaja hopes that the ongoing digitisation of the museum’s archives and research will bring them closer to the Congolese people, but does not rule out their eventual repatriation: “That is what is right.”

Looking to establish itself as a new kind of museum for a new era, Gryseels says there are plans for African and African-descendent and diaspora communities to play a major role in its curating, and points out gallery and performance spaces whose programming will be participative, after it opens later this year.

Yet he is clearly braced for criticism; there are many for whom the modernisation of the museum will be insufficient - and plenty in Belgium who believe the old museum should have remained unchanged: “But we cannot pretend to be still in the 1800s,” he says, looking down, “and perhaps this is the little perversion that the old museum allowed.”

by Ana Naomi de Sousa
Vou lá visitar | 26 May 2018 | Central African Museum at Teruvren