Students on instructional trips, file pass the Leopard Man, guys with spears, and nearly naked ladies. This is the Africa Museum in Tervuren. These sculptures were previously part of the official display in the museum. After years of national and international condemnation, the museum collaborated with a team of African diaspora specialists in Belgium to reassess the highly divisive monuments on exhibition.
The museum dates back to 1897, when King Leopold II established his International Exposition. As a result of that, 267 Congolese men, women, and children were forcibly transported to Belgium, and displayed to the public, in a fenced-in artificial villages on the premises of the museum.
However, when Belgium acquired independence from the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, the “scramble for Africa” began its full course. King Leopold II desired his own piece of the continent, but with no assistance from the government, he had to woo businessmen and the public at large.
The “human zoo” was a tactic used to persuade tourists that, Belgium had a responsibility to spread civilization and Christianity in Africa. The exhibition became a big success, and that commenced Belgium’s long and bloody history of colonialism in Congo.
Calls For The Withdrawal Of All Offensive Monuments
The museum would be celebrating its 125th anniversary, in this present day. It has also been five years since a significant refurbishment in which inappropriate sculptures were taken down, and labels around materials that depicted inaccurate image about Africa were replaced.
Visitors have increased after the renovation, however some members of the African diaspora insist that, more must be done, and that the sculptures should be withdrawn entirely. Others argue that, the museum should be closed down because its historical exhibitions depicted Africans as primitive.
The museum claims it cannot change the past but it’s dedicated to help construct a better tomorrow.
“We realized that most children had their first encounter with Africa through a visit to this museum, either when they came with the school or with their parent. For 100 years that impression was basically one of stereotypes that Africa was good for providing nature and we were good for providing culture. From stereotypes you get pre-judgements and from pre-judgements you get a certain amount of racism.”Guido Gryseels, Former Director of the Museum.
In 2001, a poll confirmed that, 95% of Belgians believed colonization was a positive adventure. The study was repeated in 2022, and the percentage reduced to 35%.
Despite the museum’s greatest attempts, part of its past is still obscure. Colorful draperies that hangs over the walls of the Rotunda, is the stunning spherical atrium. Behind them are larger-than-life statues, with an accompanying French captions such as “La Belgique apportant la civilisation au Congo,” which translates as “Belgium brings civilization to Congo.”
The phrase “Belgium brings security to Congo” is written on a plaque beneath a golden goddess-like statue with a Congolese infant at her feet. The image in the counter-narrative displays an armed Belgian soldier clutching an automated rifle. Another sculpture depicts a Congolese man battling with a snake.
“Here, you will notice the statue is black and the others are gold, because gold is seen as superior, as godly, but this is for someone who is inferior,” Africa Museum colleague Marie-Reine Iyumva added.
Iyumva has been part of an emerging class of African-American staff members that have been recruited to assist with the changes and offer perspective. She stated that, their work is not as simple as eliminating or modifying harmful material.
“The building is protected, it’s part of the Flanders Cultural Heritage, so we cannot touch anything from the walls of the building. So what we did is we commissioned contemporary artists to present their alternative interpretation.”