European Museums.. ‘from colonial to post colonial to de-colonial’

On 21 April 2017, the African Studies Center (Leiden University) organized its annual outing to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium).

The museum was founded in 1898 by Leopold II the King of Belgium who added Congo after the Belin Conference 1884 to his personal property.

and because he was so fascinated by his new entitlement, he decided to get samples of this beautiful Congo to Europeans at home and built his pride, prestige, and power among other Europeans. so in the World Exhibition 1897, the king projected samples of his property in his royal palace that is located out of Brussels in Tervuren; furthermore, he constructed electrify infrastructure and a special tram line (40) to bring people from Brussels to the museum in Tervuren.


The colonial museum included a permanent exhibition of botanic, animal and human samples… it was the European mind that all species including human in Africa were aliens and not equal to them. so they treated them as objects with some curiosity to explore these species. (Check the movie of  Vénus noire about a real story of how colonizer behaved with African people.


My feelings before visiting the museum were a mix of irritation, grievance, and research curiosity. would I see how Leopold II controlled Congo? how he brought human beings and exhibit them in “human zoo”? would I see stolen animals and objects? how was Belgian colonial policy in Congo? would I see the current life of Congolese people?

Many of these negative feelings receded when we started our journey in the museum for two main reasons: the museum has been in renovation process since 2013 and it will be reopened in January 2018. so there are no exhibited objects then no interaction with tangible history. The second reason which is the most important is the spirit and mentality of the museum management team that Belgian colonization in Congo is an ashamed period in their history and most of the Belgian people are not proud of that.



Our host in the museum tour is Dr.Bruno Verbergt who delivered the introductory lecture and then took us on a tour of the under-renovated museum.

During the tour, Dr.Verbergt put us in the complexity of colonization and discussed it clearly with the sense of objectivity and the premises of universal values. I captured the following explanations he provided in the introductory lecture and in the tour.

1- at the beginning of his lecture he said ” we are ashamed of it ( colonial time)”, ” we are not proud of it”. additionally, he mentioned to the debate about the colonial history of Belgium and the awful practices in Congo, as some said it was a personal behavior of the king Leopold II not the government of Belgium. an issue is related to the debate inside Belgium is its role in language aspect because Belguim had the flemish movement that was struggling against french culture domination, this struggle was moved to Congo as scientists and missionaries who belonged to the flemish movement supported conserving the local languages and not to standardize into one language.

2-   There are phases of the objective of the museums that projecting African collection in Europe, they are:  1) colonial museum: that aims to show Africa out of history with uncivilized people. so it exhibits Africans as objects from the European perception. 2) post-colonial museum focuses on the cultural dimension in exhibiting Africans. so the ethnographic history is projected. 3) de-colonial museum that aims to exhibit the both narratives of African peoples and colonizers.


3-  To decolonize the museum, the big statue of King Leopold II was removed from the museum because of the feeling of shame of his colonial policies. and what’s important, the museum administration does not want visitors to link between the fascinating building and the structure of the museum with King Leopold II.  If visitors think in this link that implies a respect to the colonial King. however, Dr. Verbergt showed us the two mirrored LL, the symbolic of the King Leopold II, carved in many corners inside and outside the palace. so it is difficult to erase the history of this king completely but at least not to glorify him.

4- Another attempt to decolonize the museum is how to show the grievance of Congolese people juxtapositions Belgian narrative. In a big corridor inside the palace, there are big historical murals documented the names of Belgian militants who died in Congo. the current administration of the museum decided to project at the same space the names of the seven Africans who died in Belgium while they were part of the human zoo or as named the African Personal.


The museum is not only a space of exhibiting collection but it includes scientific institutes (botanic, linguistic ” Bantu languages”, biology and earth science) besides a huge archive.  This massive collection just 1% of it exhibited in the museum and the rest is in store rooms for temporary exhibitions and for research purposes.

I appreciate the intellectual perspective and efforts to decolonize the museum, however,  there are silent remarks or questions popped up in my head:

1- the museum will include special room for diaspora in order to include African narrative in the museum but it was not clear, which diaspora, who came after independence, who well settled in Belgium, who are refugees, who are artists? Or the historical and contemporary life of all of those will be exhibited?!

2- The institutes in the museum host African scientists and artists and one of the objectives of the museum is to spread knowledge and contribute in changing the opinion and attitude… regardless these good intentions but there is no initiative – mentioned in the presentation or on the tour- to establish a museum or an institute in Congo and return at least part of this massive collection that the capacity of museum can not project. it is important to practice de-colonisation in Congo not in Belgium only!.

3- The institutes of the museum focus on studying and researching natural resources (wood, earth science) and Congo is one of the richest African countries of natural resources.  knowledge and domination is a big dilemma and it is everlasting but it is difficult for academia to raise it!

Visiting museums is not an easy decision between dazzling of the ways of exhibiting collections and the burdens of history and memory.

another perspective I found it in the article published in pambazuka news about Benin artefacts.




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