Even before France’s landmark restitution report roiled the European museum world asunder, Belgium faced considerable pressure from intellectuals and activists to return its colonially looted objects to Africa. Now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has announced that it will request repatriation of its artifacts and human remains in June when the country’s former Royal Museum of Central Africa officially inaugurates its refurbishment as the newly titled Africa Museum.
Located on the outskirts of Brussels, the Africa Museum symbolized the ravages of colonialism that Belgium exacted upon its Congolese subjects during 75 years of occupation. When it first opened in 1898, the institution was essentially a trophy case for King Leopold II, the Belgian ruler who established his own personal fiefdom in the Congo region by 1885. His reign was so violent that the Belgian government eventually took control of the colony. For decades, reports flooded into Europe that the king subjugated his people with savage acts of brutality, like cutting off the hands of men, women, and children.
Not that a terrifying legacy or potentially looted collection has prevented the Africa Museum from raising funds. The recently completed five-year refurbishment cost $102.5 million. In addition to a new entrance pavilion, the museum will contain revised displays and labels that supposedly help “decolonize” an institution fundamentally built on colonialism. Accordingly, staffers have removed overtly racists statues from the main galleries and put them in a basement room where they will still be accessible. (However, the museum was unable to remove an enormous gilded statue representing Belgium’s “civilizing effect” on Africa due to its size from the building’s main rotunda.)
With criticism mounting and restitution claims coming, the museum’s PR has tried to reposition itself as an ethical institution by acknowledging its fraught history. “We are taking a much more critical view of our history here; we condemn colonialism as a system of government and we take responsibility for our past,” the museum’s operational director of public services Bruno Verbergt tells The Art Newspaper.
Africa Museum’s Director-General Guido Gryseels also says that he is open to requests and that he supports the renewed discussion in Europe about the repatriation of collections comprised of looted artifacts.
“We are open to constructive dialogue. We are willing to consider requests for restitution,” Gryseels said at the press preview of the museum’s reopening.
The DRC is not the first African nation to request restitution from its former colonizers. As Hyperallergic reported in late November, both Senegal and the Ivory Coast have announced their intentions to request the return of artifacts from France.
For over a century, Belgium’s particularly brutal colonial past has haunted the small European country, but in recent months it has become an extremely sensitive matter. In late September, a petition penned by intellectuals and activists urged Belgian parliament to deaccession looted objects and trigger the process of restitution. A subsequent floor debate in the legislative branch only led to an agreement to convene a panel on the topic later on. The controversy has become so politically sensitive that Belgium’s King Phillippe decided to skip the Africa Museum’s ceremonial reopening celebration on December 8 for fear of being dragged into the debate.
Negotiations between Belgium and Congo will be difficult, though, especially because DRC president Joseph Kabila is not technically an elected official at present time. Kabila has remained in power despite his second term ending in 2016. In the long-delayed December elections, he is backing his former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who critics say will be a puppet for the former leader.
Gryseels also says that the Africa Museum is waiting to assess the facilities of the Congo’s new national museum located in Kinshasa, which is being funded by South Korea.
“I was in Congo last month and I expected that question to come next year because there is currently no museum in Congo,” Gryseels tells The Guardian. “They don’t even have a storage place and the director told me himself and in public that his priority was to conserve the collection that they still have. There are 85,000 artifacts in Kinshasa, stored in rather in difficult conditions, not more than a barn actually.”
“It is not normal that 80% of the African cultural heritage is in Europe.” Gryseels conceded. “It is basically their culture, their identity, their history. We need to have a very open attitude. The question is under what conditions. How do we define what was legally acquired and what was not legally acquired?”