Belgium’s controversial Africa Museum re-opened on Saturday after a five-year renovation, but protests and a request from the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the return of its stolen artefacts have overshadowed the site’s unveiling.
A 66 million euro ($75 million) upgrade was intended to help the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which houses items looted from what is now the DRC during Belgium’s brutal occupation of the country, shed its imperialist image.
But DRC President Joseph Kabila told Belgian newspaper Le Soir last week he would be making a formal request for the return of artifacts from his country in time for the opening of the country’s own museum next year.
And protests took place Saturday against the museum’s display of items plundered from the continent, with activists also demanding a memorial to seven Congolese people who died in 1897 after being brought to Belgium as living exhibits.
King Leopold II, who oversaw a colonial empire known as the Belgian Congo, put a total of 267 Congolese people on display in Tervuren, where today’s museum is located, as part of the World’s Fair.
A sculpture called the “Leopard Man,” second left, is stored with others in a cavernous room at the Africa Museum. Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP
“These victims deserve the same respect, if not more, than those of the dead colonialists,” protest group Intal Congo said.
Belgium had a colony in Africa from the 1880s to 1960, covering land in what is now the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, which was exploited to harvest rubber and other resources.
“Before the renovation, the permanent exhibition was outdated and its presentation not very critical of the colonial image. A new scenography was urgently required,” the museum admits on its website.
A new exhibition, 53 Echoes of Zaire, depicts the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire. A former Belgian colony, native people suffered greatly at the hands of their colonial masters.
Congo Belge II, Kalema. 52.5 x 69cm, Acrylic on canvas. Credit: Etienne Bol
“The big challenge was to present a contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa in a building which had been designed as a colonial museum,” the statement adds.
To create a more “critical” tone, the museum will now feature videos examining African viewpoints of the period and a sculpture by Congolese artists Aimé Mpané.
But protesters against the site have demanded a new relationship to be established between Belgium and its former colonies, “based on solidarity and cooperation on an equal footing.”
The museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.