6 March 2020

MEG visit to the Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA/Africa Museum) Tervuren, Belgium. 6-9 Feb 2020


By Sally Ayres, curator, RAMM, Exeter.

When Rachel Heminway Hurst’s email arrived in December last year, proposing a MEG trip to Tervuren to visit the Royal Museum of Central Africa and be guided around the re-displays of this controversial museum, I think I was one of the first to sign up. I had been to the museum many years ago while researching the representation of African artefacts in Western museums and RMCA had been an important museum to see. The museum was built for King Leopold II to celebrate and parade the rich resources of the Congo colony that he had claimed, with considerable violence, in the 1880’s. When I had last visited, a distinct pride in Belgium’s colonial history was evident: what would the museum look like now, after a multi-million decolonising redevelopment?

Six MEG members headed out of the EU Quarter of Brussels to the leafy suburbs of Tervuren by tram on a sunny morning in February. Sarah Morton, Kathleen Lawther, Malika Kraamer, Rachel and I met up with Axelle Van Wynsberghe on the way. The first thing that struck me as we arrived at Tervuren was the indirect route you now take from the tram stop to the new museum entrance: a deliberate ploy to avoid one being  over-impressed by the  grandiose display of power that was experienced in the former approach to the palatial ‘Museum of the Congo’.  These days you enter the grounds by a back road through the grounds leading to a modernistic sharp-edged large box of glass. This building acts as a welcome centre and as a window onto the ornate, domed and decorated turn of the century museum, so that the colonial building becomes ‘the first museum object’ you see. 

Bruno Verbergt, Operational Director of the RMCA, explained the rationale of the renovation over a cup of coffee. He spoke candidly about the challenges and compromises involved in the redevelopment and it became clear that indeed, many compromises had been necessary over significant conflicts concerning representation. Bruno said wryly ‘we are Belgians and we are used to compromise’ but the key intention, he insisted, was that ‘new constructs replace colonial ones, rooted in paradigms that give a central role to superdiversity, globalisation and multipolarity’. This meant that the museum has to take a ‘critical and apt’ attitude to its own history, to King Leopold, to the colony and to the victims of colonial violence. While he argued that ‘we cannot unify people on the basis of the past’, Bruno proposed that we can unify on the basis of the future.  To do this the museum had to act as a platform for power-sharing. 

We soon had a chance to see the ways the museum displays worked towards these ideals as we were escorted by curator Sophie Bouillon and conservator Siska Genbrugge down the long white corridor that takes the visitor underground, to the original museum building. Again your expectations are disrupted- when you finally emerge up a modest staircase into the old museum you find yourself in one of the building’s wings, with a view onto an open empty courtyard space. Ghostly names of Congolese appear on the nearby memorial wall when the sun casts shadows from the names written on the windows. These shadows identify the Congolese people who died in the ‘human zoo’ that was made for the World Expo in Antwerp in 1894. The children who died in the Belgian city of Gijzegem’s residential school between 1890 and 1906 are also remembered alongside the names on the traditional memorial to the Belgians who died in the early colonial period in the Congo.



But before entering this staircase the visitor has the all-important opportunity to read and watch multi-media interpretations of the RMCA’s new approach to its colonial past and its aspirations for the future. The area assigned for this introduction is a white-walled, but crypt-like basement, simply called ‘Introduction with Sculpture Depot’. The communication is multimedia:  maps, film, models, photographs and objects. Every label and interpretation panel has to be written in three languages (French, English and Dutch) posing a challenge to text writers and designers alike. The turn-around for one label in the RMCA is estimated as six weeks. These introductory displays explain all the enterprises of the Tervuren research centre, which include natural and life sciences (using extensive ongoing field work in several African countries) as well as housing the Henry Morton Stanley Archive. An open ‘depot’ or ‘storage room’ houses the no-longer-appropriate statues of Africans such as the infamous ‘leopard man’ which had once been on central display in the old museum. But, we asked ourselves, does this theatre effectively communicate the statues’ redundancy? And are they needed on show at all? 



It is in this introductory area that RMCA makes its position on colonialism clear. A touchscreen panel, answering the question ‘What is the museum’s position on colonisation today?’ states: 

Colonialism is a form of government based on military occupation, authoritarian and sometimes racist administration and exploitation. The museum therefore explicitly distances itself from it. It takes responsibility for the impact that its previous propaganda for colonialism has had on the multicultural society of today and for the message of Western moral and intellectual superiority it has conveyed in the past.  

This introductory area may easily be by-passed by many visitors eager to get into the museum ‘proper’ but it sets the tone for almost all that follows. African and African diaspora voices have a greater presence than ever before, whether in film (interviews, musical performances, dancing) or photographs, critical texts or artworks, throughout the galleries.  This was maybe most successful in the galleries based around the anthropological themes of Languages and Music , and Rituals and Ceremonies but it was also seen, for example, in videos inviting contemporary critique of old propaganda  films made in the colonial period promoting the ‘civilising mission’ of Belgians in the Congo. Younger faces and voices are also seen, via the digital project, Africa Tube. This online platform invites young black communities to select material from African and diaspora sources on the internet and to add it to a live virtual library, connecting the museum with ‘afrocyberspace’. 

Not all galleries involve living voices or post-independence African contributions however:  the ‘temporary exhibition’ Unrivalled Art is unapologetic in its representation of the collections as fine art, structured around a Western art historical methodology with little reference to living source communities. This was a lively talking point for our group, and was still being discussed as we relaxed over beer and frites at the end of the long day. One of the great strengths of a trip like this is the conversation between colleagues and our subject matter over the three days ranged from restitution, repatriation, source communities, budget cuts and Brexit, to practical ideas on email overload, unrealistic expectations and productive use of long commutes, amongst other things. Our talks were heartfelt, supportive and useful in true MEG spirit and I think we all came away stimulated and encouraged by sharing the time together. Thank you Rachel for organising it all. 

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