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The struggle to tell the story of colonialism

Economist 2018-12-06 21:11:57

IT IS A magnificently bizarre hybrid. Still officially called the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but better known as the Africa Museum, it cannot help but ooze colonial triumphalism, despite recent protestations of egalitarian diversity. Housed in a majestic purpose-built palace 20 minutes’ drive east of Brussels, it stands above a lake amid parkland. Immaculate gravel paths sweep around the site. However radically the interior may have been refashioned to reflect new attitudes to Africa, the grandeur of King Leopold II’s design and the fervour of his desire to promote his imperial venture into the continent’s heart still overwhelm the visitor. The monarch ruled Congo as a private estate nearly 80 times bigger than his European homeland from 1885 until a year before his death in 1909; his double-L motif is embossed on almost every wall and above many an alcove.

Short of knocking the entire edifice flat, the museum’s current regime, run since 2001 by Guido Gryseels, a 66-year-old agricultural expert, has spent the past five years behind closed doors seeking to put a modern imprint on an irredeemably archaic structure. It reopens on December 9th. “We’ll be criticised on both sides,” predicts Mr Gryseels, who, like many modern museum bosses, is perforce a canny diplomat. “For not going far enough and for being too politically correct.”

The result is a brilliant, weird, tantalising hotch-potch of old and new. A glass oblong now encases a new entrance, restaurant, conference hall and auditorium a stone’s throw from the main building, to which it is connected by an underground tunnel-cum-gallery painted in bright white that hosts a huge dug-out canoe carved out of a single tree. On the other side of the main palace, a separate pavilion, a century old, still houses a library holding the archive of Henry Morton Stanley, the Victorian explorer commissioned by Leopold to advance the king’s imperial interests ahead of his European rivals.

Whether the colonial enterprise is now deemed a source of national shame or pride, the sheer wealth and variety of the treasures within are a marvel. “It’s probably the largest museum of its kind in the world,” says Mr Gryseels. “It has 125,000 ethnographic items, 10m zoological ones, 6m insects, 8,000 musical instruments, 200,000 rock samples, 3,000 historical maps, 4km of archives...”

Unsurprisingly, the most controversial issue is how to present history. Leopold’s regime is now widely condemned as one of the cruellest in colonial Africa, with forced labour akin to slavery and horrifying punishments such as the amputation of hands. Mr Gryseels is unequivocal. “Colonialism as a system of governance is now considered immoral, authoritarian, racist, based on military occupation and exploitation,” he says, while acknowledging beneficial “individual contributions in such things as medicine and education”. The museum’s new message is broadly damning.

But its original one cannot be physically expunged. Late-19th-century maps of the Congo are encrusted on the walls, along with an honorific granite mural naming 1,600 Belgians who died on service for the king during his quarter-century of predation. A central rotunda still contains four famously controversial statues depicting white men clad in gold-painted raiment in arrogantly paternalistic postures. Captions hail their mission to bring “high civilisation” to the benighted natives, who gaze up gratefully at their mentors. Just as controversially, a gallery devoted to natural resources asks, in Mr Gryseels’s words, “why, if Africa is so rich, is it still so poor?”

Leopold and his ghosts

Belgium took longer than other European powers fully to acknowledge the dark legacy of colonialism. A third of white Belgians are thought to have family or business links to Congo or the other two former Belgian dependencies, Rwanda and Burundi. A society of veterans still battles fiercely to defend the reputation of Leopold and the colonial achievement in general. In particular, it points out that since Congo became independent in 1960 it has suffered under almost unparalleled misrule and misery.

Activists in Belgium’s lively Congolese community, however, largely blame the colonialists for leaving the locals ill-prepared to govern and, among other crimes, for conniving in the assassination of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Representatives of the diaspora have advised the museum on the revamp. Contemporary as well as ancient ethnic Congolese art is handsomely displayed. Colonial interpretations and prejudices that previously underscored the items on show are rigorously explained in a light more sympathetic to the indigenous people.

Still, some diaspora voices say that they have been ignored. Some resent the notion that their ancestors are depicted in galleries that elsewhere exhibit stuffed animals—invoking (they say) the shocking memory of 1897, when 267 Congolese were brought over to be shown off in a human zoo, seven of them dying in the unfamiliar climate. “Africans are not study objects but people,” Anne Wetsi Mpoma, an art historian in Brussels, has pointed out.

Such resentments have sharpened since last year when France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, denounced the acquisition of African art now lodged in French and other European museums and declared that it should be given back. “The African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums,” he said. A report he commissioned, written by a Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, and a French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, issued its verdict on November 23rd. It concluded that a first tranche of 26 outstanding items should be given back immediately, another lot within five years, and the rest in due course, either on loan or permanently, once their provenance is properly established. Some 90,000 ethnographic and other African items, the report noted, adorn France’s premier African collection, the Musée du Quai Branley in Paris. It implies that most such treasures were taken “by theft, looting, spoils [of war], trickery and sales under duress”.

Finders, keepers

African activists calling for mass restitution tend to affirm that virtually all art brought from Africa in the colonial era was acquired immorally. Some, such as the glorious Benin bronzes—seized on a British expedition to what is now Nigeria in 1897—were patently looted. Others were doubtless stolen or locals bamboozled or persuaded to sell under duress. But who can say definitively how each such transaction was conducted? Nor is it clear to whom the artefacts should be returned. Royal or chiefly families, tribal communities, churches, states that did not then exist in their modern form—each may have competing claims.

Hartwig Fischer, who runs the British Museum (where many of the bronzes are held), says it and other European institutions have been discussing long-term loans to African museums. Yet in previous instances some proved ill-equipped to look after such valuables. In 1977 the Belgian government, seeking to improve relations with Congo’s venal president, Mobutu Sese Seko, returned a trove of exquisite items. Almost all rapidly disappeared or were sold off on the international market. No matter, argue some in the Congolese diaspora. Their view is that what happens to returned art is no concern of outsiders. It should go back to Africa forthwith.

For his part, Mr Gryseels is wary of Mr Macron’s initiative. “It’s a very complex issue,” he says. The wrangle is likely to be as prolonged as the reckoning that Belgium, and the Africa Museum, are conducting with their pasts. “The museum’s decolonisation will take time,” says Ayoko Mensah, a Franco-Togolese member of a group that has advised on the renovation. “But it’s well and truly on the march.”

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "The burden of history"