RMCA: from colonial institute to forum for debate

GUIDO GRYSEELS

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THE Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren near Brussels, Belgium, was established in 1898 as the ‘Musée du Congo’. It originated from a temporary exhibition organized in 1897 at the initiative of King Leopold II who was then the sovereign ruler of Congo Free State. This country had been assigned to him in a personal capacity at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 by the western powers. His regime in Congo was characterized by authoritarian and racist rule, brutality and violence especially with respect to the exploitation of rubber and repatriation of immense profits. Recent estimates have put the number of Congolese victims during his rule at between 500,000 and 1.5 million deaths, as a result of excessive violence, famine and disease. International pressure on the government of Belgium to withdraw King Leopold II from the Congo mounted as a result of the continuing violence and the large number of Congolese victims, but the Belgian government and people were very reluctant to engage in colonial activities and to accept Congo Free State to be run as a Belgian colony.

King Leopold II subsequently organized from 10 May to 8 November 1897 an exhibition in his palace in Tervuren, to convince the Belgian public at large of the merits of colonization and to encourage the financial world to invest in the Congo. The exhibition displayed Congolese products of potential importance for the Belgian economy, such as coffee, tea and agricultural products but also plants and flowers, ethnographical objects, fish and stuffed animals.

The exhibition also brought 267 Congolese to Belgium to show their daily life in reconstituted Congolese villages around the lakes of Tervuren near the exhibition site. Today we would call this a ‘human zoo’ and its objective was to show the Belgian public that Congolese could be civilized and taught to read and write and dress properly. During daytime women demonstrated activities such as cooking, handicraft making, dancing, and child care. Men organized boat races with their canoes, or demonstrated dances and played on the drums. At night-time, the Congolese slept in army barracks. Seven of them died during their stay, presumably from pneumonia as it was a cold summer in Belgium for which they were not prepared. Their tombs are still located next to Tervuren church.

 

This temporary exhibition and the reconstituted Congolese villages were a big attraction for the public and 1.2 million people visited the exhibition. It showed the African as the inferior other who could be brought into civilization by the European conquest. There are reports of visitors treating them as primitive people and feeding them bananas, racist acts that still persist in animal chants at football matches in Europe and which UEFA has tried to stamp out. It is this persisting racism that the renovated museum seeks to address. In November 2021, the Museum will present a temporary exhibition on this and other human zoos that took place in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Following public interest, the exhibition of objects and animals was converted into the permanent ‘Musée du Congo’ that started its activities in 1898.

From the start the RMCA had a triple function as an exhibition, a research institute and a centre for information dissemination. The museum was at the start housed in the Colonial Palace where the temporary exhibition of 1897 had taken place, but very quickly, the museum building was too small to house the ever-growing collections and to cope with the many visitors. Consequently, King Leopold II decided to construct a new museum building, inspired by the Petit and Grand Palais in Paris. In the meantime, following continuing international pressure to stop the unacceptable violence associated with the rubber exploitation in Congo Free State, as well as the rising economic interests of Belgian politicians and industrialists, Belgium agreed in 1908 to take over Congo from King Leopold II and to run it as a Belgian colony.

The new museum building opened in 1910 as the ‘Musée du Congo belge’ and is located amidst beautiful, landscaped French gardens. The RMCA was put under the auspices of the Ministry of Colonies and the museum served as a promotional tool for the public at large and conducted research in support of Belgian colonial activities. The rapidly growing collections served as a basis for multidisciplinary research.

 

In 1960, Congo became independent from Belgium and the museum changed its name to ‘Royal Museum for Central Africa’. Today, the RMCA’s principal activities are in the fields of research and scientific services, both in the human and the natural sciences, collection management, dissemination of knowledge, organization of exhibitions, sensitization and educational activities and strengthening of national institutions in Africa.

Over the years, the RMCA became one of the most popular museums in Belgium. For most Belgian children, their visit (usually with the family or with the school) represents their first encounter with Africa. For most, it leaves a deep and lasting impression. Many of their views on Africa have their origin in that first museum visit. RMCA’s collections and archives are among the largest and richest in the world with respect to Central Africa. They consist, among others, of 135,000 ethnographical objects, 10 million zoological specimen, four kilometre historical and geological archives, 15,000 mineral samples, one million photographs and 3,000 historical films. We need to recognize that nearly all of these collections have been registered and described by white scientists, and that knowledge of source communities is often absent. Their reclassification and reinterpretation by African scientists are, therefore, an essential part of the decolonization process of the museum.

Research is conducted in four major scientific domains: cultural anthropology, history, biology and earth sciences. The RMCA is a public sector institute and about 80% of its funding is provided by the Belgian Federal Government. Its annual budget is around 18 million euro and it has around 220 staff of which 75 are scientists. The RMCA is active in development cooperation and has partnerships in 15 African countries. The RMCA also contributes every year to the training of on average 150 African scientists, museologists and graduate students.

 

Even though DRCongo became independent in 1960, the permanent exhibition of the museum remained largely unchanged from the mid-fifties until its renovation and complete overhaul, and the reopening of the museum in 2018. As a result, until the beginning of the 21st century, the permanent exhibition of the museum still reflected the colonial view that Belgium had of Central Africa. The museum was often labelled ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. Furthermore, the museum building had been constructed as a tribute to King Leopold II and colonialism. In the former entrance hall, statues holding titles such as ‘Belgium bringing civilization to Congo’ or ‘Belgium bringing welfare to Congo’ are present. Several galleries carry the quotes of former kings and of Leopold II praising the benefits of colonialism. The stamp of the monogram of Leopold II appears 45 times both inside and outside the museum building. The museography also had a strong colonial imprint with, for example, stereotypes of Africans, classification of objects by ethnic groups, and the separation of nature and culture.

 

In 2002, the RMCA launched an ambitious project of renovation to transform the former colonial museum into a museum for contemporary Africa, which could not only play an important societal role, but which would also make available modern facilities. As a first priority this project prepared a new strategic plan for RMCA which resulted in a process of dialogue with African communities and the African diaspora and a set of institutional policies.1

For the development of the new permanent exhibition, it was decided early on that there should be a strong link with contemporary Africa, that the African voice should be central, that it should have a critical view of the colonial past, and that the exhibition should be based on modern themes with a direct link to sustainable development. The RMCA should become a forum for debate and a meeting place for Belgians and members of the source communities whose heritage is being held in the RMCA. Furthermore, the renovation process had to include a major improvement of the infrastructural facilities of the museum. Architectural plans were prepared subsequently, including a major master plan for the entire museum site (covering seven buildings and four hectares of French landscaped gardens).

In order to ensure a contemporary view of the museum, and to ensure its societal role, a working group was set up in 2003 with representatives of associations of African diaspora in Belgium. This group developed into a smaller advisory committee by the name of COMRAF. In 2014, COMRAF also appointed a group of six experts of African origin, to advise the museum in crucial discussions on strategic directions and development of specific proposals for the new museum galleries.

In order to provide the contents basis for a new view on the colonial past, it was felt necessary to first deal with RMCA’s own history as a colonial institute and that of Belgium as a colonial power. This meant organizing a series of temporary exhibitions on the origin of RMCA’s collections, Belgium’s colonial experiences and on the history of the Congo.

 

The first exhibit (2000/2001) that took place in the context of the renovation of the museum was ‘Exit Congo’, which told the story of the origin of the RMCA’s ethnographic collections. They were collected by missionaries, by administrators, by military expeditions and by scientific collection missions. The exhibit also confronted historic collections with contemporary art of both Congolese and Belgian artists.

Given its multidisciplinary capacity and its focus on sustainable development, the RMCA accepted an invitation from UNESCO and its World Heritage Centre to organize in Paris a second temporary exhibition (2004) on the natural and cultural diversity of the Congo. The exhibition, ‘Congo: Nature and Culture’ gave the museum the opportunity to conduct a ‘trial run’ of sorts on interdisciplinary research and exhibitions. After Paris the exhibition was installed in the RMCA for a year and then moved to DRCongo, where it is now on display in several museums. This exhibit also provided the basis for educational activities and workshops for schools in Congo.

 

The third exhibition, ‘The memory of Congo: the colonial era’, on the colonial past of DRCongo took place in 2005 and was an enormous success. More than 140,000 people visited the exhibition which was accompanied by a large number of other activities such as debates, seminars, film projections and special educational activities both for adults and for young people. A scientific colloquium on colonial violence was also organized. Most importantly, the exhibition led to widespread attention and debates on the colonial past within Belgian society with hundreds of press articles and media broadcasts. The impact of the exhibition was very profound. At the societal level it led to a process of soul-searching and reflection, given the very critical approach to the colonial system of governance, and the violence it entailed. This was very confrontational given the fact that most Belgians grew up with a very favourable image of the Belgian colonization of Congo. After this exhibition, the history gallery of the museum was renovated and modernized in close collaboration with the African diaspora.

In 2010, on the 50th anniversary of independence of DRCongo, a fourth exhibition was organized: ‘Independence: Congolese stories about 50 years of Independence’. The exhibition provided information about the independence of Congo, on the basis of information provided by Congo-lese. With nearly 60,000 visitors, the exhibition was a major success. It was the first time that Belgians were exposed to how Congolese had perceived independence.

 

Throughout the renovation process and discussions on the new museum exhibition, continuous dialogue was assured with the African diaspora through the COMRAF mechanism. It also organized family days to encourage Africans to visit the museum and to feel part of it. RMCA also coordinated efforts of the READ-ME project (Réseau européen des Associations de Diaspora et Musées d’Ethnographie) that aimed at a European level for a closer association of the diaspora with ethnographical museums through projects, colloquia and joint exhibitions. RMCA also pursued a major research programme on African diaspora particularly with respect to the social identity, social capital and social memory about the colonial period.

In developing a new exhibition that transformed the colonial spirit of the museum into a more contemporary spirit, the RMCA considered the following elements as drivers of change.2,3

Colonial museums

Post-colonial museums

* Contrast between European ‘civilization’ and African ‘primitiveness’

* Principle: African cultures and age-long history of cultural influence

* Juxtaposition of timeless nature and culture

* Africa has a long, dynamic history

* Emphasis on specimen and objects

* (African) men and women are at the centre

* Colonial societies presented as if colonization never took place

* Inclusion of ‘popular’ culture created as a result of colonization

* Organization of ethnographic objects on the basis of material and aesthetic criteria

* Ethnographic objects tell the story of their history, origin, use and meaning

* Africans represented by Europeans

* Africans represent themselves

The most challenging issue in developing the new permanent exhibition was how to address the colonial history of Congo and Belgium. It is a shared history. The temporary exhibitions ‘The memory of Congo: the colonial era’ of 2005, and ‘Independence’ of 2010, had prepared much of the groundwork. Furthermore, scientists and educational collaborators prepared an educational publication on the colonization and decolonization of Congo4 for use in secondary schools. Several workshops were held on colonial history and major efforts were made in collecting witness accounts from Congolese, African diaspora and former Belgian workers in the colonies. The new gallery on colonial history in the renovated museum was also prepared in close collaboration with African institutions, Congolese experts and the African diaspora in Belgium. It was developed along the following elements:

* The long history of Central Africa before the colonial period 1885-1960. Particular emphasis was given to the rich society structures of Central Africa between the 13th and 15th century;

* The era of European imperialism in the 19th century and the implications of the Conference of Berlin of 1885 that divided Africa between colonial powers;

* The development of the Independent Free State of Congo (1885 to 1908) when Congo was de facto the private property of King Leopold II. This included a focus on the violence associated with the exploitation of workers in the rubber plantations in particular;

* The period of Belgian Congo (1908-1960) with its paternalist approach to administration and organization;

* Testimonies of Congolese individuals and institutions, of diaspora of Central Africa, and of former officials in the colony;

* The period of decolonization and developments in Congo after 1960, and Rwanda and Burundi after 1962.

 

The renovation of the museum was needed not only for reasons of content, but also of museography (use of multimedia) and better infrastructure (modern facilities such as conference rooms, multifunctional auditoria, new galleries with climate control for temporary exhibits, …). The museum first developed a general Master Plan which was subsequently refined in a detailed analysis of needs. The museum building is a protected monument (no structural changes are allowed) and a balance needed to be found between its historical values and perspectives and modern infrastructural needs.

However, the renovation of the museum building had to be seen in a broader holistic plan that included the renovation of the entire RMCA site with its seven buildings and its four hectare park. The formal proposal for the renovation of the museum site and building was approved by the Belgian federal government in 2006. The contract was assigned to a consortium led by Belgian architect Stéphane Beel. In a first step, he made a master plan for the entire site, which was based on centralization of functions. In a second step, he developed detailed architectural plans for the renovated museum. A new building was to be constructed that would house reception facilities, a shop, a restaurant/cafeteria and meeting facilities. This new building was to be connected with the museum building through an underground gallery. In that gallery, a multifunctional space as well as acclimatized temporary exhibition spaces are foreseen. The total cost of the renovation programme was around 75 million euro almost entirely funded by the Belgian Federal Government through the Federal Building Agency.

 

The renovated museum, with its new permanent exhibition and the new infrastructure, opened its doors on 8 December 2018 after a closure of five years for the renovation works.

The new permanent exhibition is composed of modern themes with a direct relation to sustainable development such as language and music, biodiversity and landscapes, resources, a mineral cabinet, the long history of Africa, colonial history, and rituals and ceremonies. There is also a temporary gallery showing masterpieces of ethnographic collections. One gallery in the museum, Afropea, deals specifically with the origin of African presence in Belgium and has been entirely designed and prepared by African diaspora. The permanent exhibition is multidisciplinary, the African voice is central, and it is supported by extensive audiovisual support systems. In every corner of the museum there is an interactive space for the visitor, such as a Rumba corner, a Taxolab, a Representation corner and a Studio 6+ for children.

In those galleries that historically had a strong colonial imprint, the museum asked African artists to make a work of art that entered into contrast with the colonial messages. For example: the memorial gallery lists the names of 1500 white Belgian men that died in the early years of colonization. No mention was made of the many Congolese victims of colonization. So, the museum asked Congolese artist Freddy Tsimba to make an installation that entered into dialogue with the names of the white Belgian men. He put the names of seven Congolese that died in 1897 in the so-called ‘human zoo’ of Tervuren on the windows and when the sun shines, their names are projected as a shadow under the names of the white Belgian men. The objective is twofold: it reminds us of the Congolese victims of colonization and symbolically it casts a shadow over the Belgian colonial past.

 

Similarly in the big rotunda, with the statues such as ‘Belgium bringing civilization to Congo’, it was not possible to remove these statues because the building is conserved as a listed monument. We therefore asked an African artist called Aimé Mpane to also make an installation. He made an African face in wood that represents the hope and future of Africa, and a sculpture of the skull of M. Lusinga, a village chief who was murdered by Belgian military expedition in Congo Free State, which represents the brutal violence of the early colonial years. In front of the statues, transparent veils of the Belgian artist Jean-Pierre Müller give a contemporary reflection on the original colonial message. There are several other uses made of contemporary art throughout the museum.

The bottom floor through which museum visitors gain access to the permanent exhibition contains sections on the origin of the museum collections, on its scientific work, on its work on strengthening national capacities in 12 countries of Africa and on the contribution of the museum to sustainable development goals of the United Nations. On that floor there is also a storage space in which historic collections that no longer play a role in the permanent exhibition are being displayed. Some of them show Africans as primitives and white Belgian military men as heroes. The purpose here is also to initiate a discussion on how we looked at Africa before and contrast with how we look at it now. That floor also contains six educational spaces for use by school groups and where workshops are provided on topics such as music and musical instruments and their link with Africa, African cultures, biodiversity and agriculture, and colonial history. Every year, approximately 30,000 school children in Belgium participate in those workshops.

The museum has also substantially improved its infrastructure. A new entrance pavilion was constructed that contains reception facilities, a restaurant and brasserie, a shop and meeting rooms and facilities. The new building is connected with the historic museum building through an underground gallery, that contains an auditorium and new spaces for temporary exhibitions with climatization and corresponding technical and lab facilities. The museum is now fully accessible for people with disability. The historic museum building itself was completely restored from top to bottom. Space for the public increased from 6,000 to 11,000 m² and there is now nearly 7,000 m² of exhibition space.

 

The museum reopened its doors on 8 December 2018, midst a wide societal debate that started already several months before its opening. The new critical view on the colonial past led to public debates, much press attention and politicians debating Belgium’s approach to colonization. It is now widely acknowledged that colonialism is a system of governance that is profoundly immoral as it is a system of governance which is based on military occupation of a country, authoritarian and racist rule and exploitation of the resources of a country. We are condemning a system of governance and acknowledging the suffering of Africans during the period of colonial rule.

 

The AfricaMuseum has also acknowledged the effects of serving as a colonial museum for so long and particularly in promoting the superiority of European cultures over African cultures. The Africa Museum also considers that by contextualizing colonial statues which now have a racist interpretation, we can encourage a dialogue with younger people about how we looked at Africa during the colonial period and how we look at it now. For most Belgian children, their first encounter with Africa is a visit to our museum, so it is very important that we provide a learning experience. Furthermore, the museum building is a historical protected site and objects with an historic value cannot be removed.

Representatives of the African diaspora actively participated in the debates. They now represent an important minority group in Belgium. Whereas fifty years ago, there were only about 5,000 people of African origin in Belgium, they now number about 250,000. In contrast with surrounding countries, Belgium never allowed inhabitants of its colonies to migrate to Belgium. Belgium remained for much longer than surrounding countries a monocultural society. The number of Africans increased dramatically with the migration wave of the nineties and early 21st century. Many of these migrants of African origin are unemployed and are faced with racist attitudes. Especially the younger generation has become very vocal and is active on social media.

In its first year after the opening, the museum welcomed 350,000 visitors, more than three times the average before the renovation. Nearly 20% of visitors are of African origin, a major increase from the past. Overall, the reactions of the public are very positive and enthusiastic. The new look, the splendid collections, the critical tone on the colonial past that provides a forum for debate, the beauty of the surroundings and the spectacular success of the renovation of a historic building attracts worldwide attention. More than 800 journalists from 45 countries wrote a story on the museum reopening and especially the critical view on the colonial past that captured the world’s attention. Hundreds of groups participated in group tours and thousands of children participated in the workshops. The museum also works in close association with Belgian universities for the training of teachers in colonial history.

 

A year before the museum reopened, President Macron of France had relaunched the debate on the need for restitution of cultural heritage to Africa, followed by the publication of the report of Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy5 on the topic. As the museum contains some of the largest collections in the world on Central African cultural heritage, it was at the centre of that debate. The museum takes a very open and constructive attitude to restitution and acknowledges that some of its collections have been acquired through violence, theft or unequal exchanges.

The museum is open to dialogue with the countries of origin on physical restitution. It also invests in digitization of its collections and archives, and gives the countries of origin access to its inventories of collections to facilitate the dialogue with African countries. It also invests in strengthening national capacities of Central African museums in terms of collection management and restoration, public services, joint temporary exhibitions, and exchange of scientists. The Africa Museum is also giving increasing attention to provenance research on its collections particularly with respect to how they were acquired. The debate on the colonial governance of Belgium remains very lively through the press, social media, conferences and workshops.

For some, the museum did not go far enough in condemning violence and structural injustice and racism of the Belgian colonial system. For others we went way too far and did not give enough attention to some of the economic benefits of colonialism. The discussion has only intensified over time among others because of the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-racism actions and the debate of today’s meaning of colonial statutes, and of colonial symbols in Belgian villages and towns.

 

The museum tries to be a dynamic forum and opens its doors to engage with different opinions. It continues to strengthen its links with the African diaspora. The discussions surrounding the renovation of our museum has led to an evolution of societal thinking in Belgium. Until 20 years ago the majority of Belgians would refer to the so-called positive aspects of colonization, such as building roads and infrastructure, medical care, education and the increase of GNP. A recent survey of the University of Antwerp has shown that more than half of the respondents in Belgium are now very critical with respect to our colonial past. It is now widely acknowledged that schools should give much greater attention to Belgium’s colonial past, as currently it is nearly absent from the school curriculum.

The Belgian Federal Parliament has also established a special commission to investigate Belgium’s colonial past and its links with societal problems such as racism. It has appointed an expert group to synthesize the state of knowledge and to make recommendations. That report is due by mid-2021.

The renovation of the museum was a first step in the decolonization process of the RMCA and led to a wide debate in Belgian society on the consequences of the Belgian colonial system. We need to continue to develop a more structural collaboration with the African diaspora and ensure lasting changes in our cultural mind-set. We also plan further steps in the decolonization process by providing a more diverse and inclusive look at our collections and archives and on the way we conduct research. Programmes such as artists, journalists and scientists in residence are organized annually for African partners. We will also need to continue a more proactive diversity policy in staff recruitment and in the museum’s management and governance.

The AfricaMuseum will continue to play a leading role in the debates around decolonization, restitution, world citizenship, interactions with educational organizations and schools. It will be a continuing process, but it is essential in order to create understanding, and an effective approach in dealing with the contemporary challenges of a multicultural society. It will also consolidate the museum’s reputation as a leading scientific and information dissemination institute on Central Africa. The Museum is now a meeting place where people share experiences, where intercultural dialogue is promoted, where people in general are stimulated to come to terms with the past and become responsible citizens in a globalized world.

 

Footnotes:

1. G. Gryseels, G. Landry and K. Claessens, ‘Integrating the Past: Transformation and Renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren’, European Review 13(4), 2005, pp. 637-647.

2. Based on a personal communication by Bambi Ceuppens (Anthropologist RMCA), and subsequent discussions with museum staff and COMRAF.

3. Guido Gryseels, ‘The Renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium’. Paper presented at the Conference ‘Museum of Cultures, Wereldmuseum, Världskulturmuseet, …what else? Positioning ethnological museums in the 21st century’, organized by the Volkswagen Foundation and the German Museums Association, Hannover, 21-23 June 2015.

4. P. Van Schuylenbergh, et al., Congo: colonisation et décolonisation. L’histoire par les documents, 2012, Tervuren, MRAC.

5. F. Sarr and B. Savoy (eds.), Restituer Le Patrimoine Africain. Philippe Rey, Ed. du Seuil, 2018.

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