Royal Museum for Central Africa: Can curatorial re-alignment make good on decades of colonial propaganda?

After five years of gruelling setbacks, budgetary overruns and renovations, Tervuren’s famed Royal Museum for Central Africa has reopened its doors to an eager public, promising “a contemporary and ‘decolonised’ vision of Africa.” Is the museum indeed finally offering new perspectives on collections that for decades were violently reduced to a colonial identity? Does it reject the structures upon which it was built and around which it was filled? Our contributor Kaat Raymaekers teamed up with Elke Mahieu, a University of Ghent postgraduate researcher in postcolonial media studies, to unravel decades of shameless misrepresentation and out-dated characterisations.

Writers Kaat Raymaekers & Elke Mahieu
Photographer Philippe Braquenier (c)

Upon entering the newly-renovated Royal Museum for Central Africa, a 100-meter-long white corridor greets visitors, presenting only one object: a dark brown proa, 22.5 m long and weighing 3,500 kg. The proa dates back to 1957 and was officially a gift from the Congolese people to King Baudouin to make his visit to the Belgian Congo more comfortable. “In reality it was probably not a gift, but was actually ordered by the Belgians,” counters Bambi Ceuppens at the beginning of a guided tour in the new museum. With a PhD in anthropology, Dr. Ceuppens is one of RMCA’s curators. The history of the RMCA, which also doubles as a research centre, goes back to 1897, when the World Exposition took place in Brussels. In order to promote the Belgian Colony, a temporary colonial exhibition on Congo was set up 15 km away in Tervuren. For the occasion of the exhibition, King Leopold II ordered the construction of the Palace of the Colonies, which today can be booked as an event room. Next to this palace, the big monumental museum we now know to be the RMCA was built in 1910. Designed by the French architect Charles Girault, the museum functioned as an exhibition space for ethnographic objects as well as a scientific institute. By the time the museum closed its doors in 2013 for the renovation, the permanent exhibition had not changed since the late 50s.

Although the possibilities for renovation were limited since its interior design as well as the building itself are protected as heritage, a lot has managed to change. Pre-existing displays are freshened up with new interactive technologies, such as touchscreens on which visitors can swipe themselves into timelines, movie fragments and other pieces of information. People on looped film address the halls of the museum with stories of tradition or guidance of historical benchmarks while a couple of virtual reality headsets immerse visitors in different Congolese landscapes. Most of the showcases no longer imprison taxidermised animals, which now crawl around the space on all kinds of platforms instead. One room is wholly devoted to the colonial history of Belgium and DR Congo. These new additions are alternated with old showcases presenting objects taken from Central Africa since the 19th century. They are part of the RMCA’s archive, which today amounts to more than 17 million objects, everything from taxidermy animals, wood samples and rocks to minerals, musical instruments, artworks, films and photographs. In fact, the renovated exhibition displays less than one percent of the total archive.

The (re)birth of a collection

The showcase we are standing in front of looks packed. The bottom is filled with skeletons of primates which in turn look up to numerous baskets and headdresses that are made from ape skin or feathers. At the top of the showcase, we view a black mask with white patches and two big round white ears which read, “Collected by A. Hutereau”. The captions go on to describe the ethnographic mission of this collector, one mostly “devoted to the search for working tools,” with “Hutereau’s wife also gathering a modest amount of natural historical objects.”

The very notion of the collector, however, is put into doubt by Maarten Couttenier, a historian who wrote several books and articles on the history of the museum and its objects. His book Congo Tentoongesteld: Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882-1925) explains how Armand Hutereau was one of the Belgians who lead expeditions to recruit objects from Congo Free State to Belgium, taken 8,000 objects from the Congolese regions Uele and Ubangi between 1911 and 1913. In one of his academic articles, Couttenier elaborates on the “inappropriateness” of calling these men collectors: “Firstly, it negates African agency,” he explains. “Secondly, objects were not simply ‘collected’ in the field but were acquired as a result of violent conflicts.” Hutereau was interested in physical anthropology as well—part of the collection sent to the RMCA included five skulls and a skeleton of a Pygmy. Moreover, Hutereau also made prints of Congolese bodies, studying deformities and diseases like albinism, leprosy and syphilis, as well as female genitalia.

Colonial artifacts started arriving in the Belgian metropole from the end of the 19th century. And, at the museum, the objects which once were part of traditions, have now been incorporated into art collections. Or as the famous lines from the movie Les statues meurent aussi remind us, the statues died and became art. European colonialism had indeed declared many African objects dead. “When we die, we will send our statues to where we send those of Africans today: to the museum,” the essential film concludes. Rather conspicuously, and some might even say shamelessly, only one screenshot is viewable at the museum if you’re courageous enough to embark upon a long swipe session on one of the touchscreens.

At the museum, the aesthetic qualities of the pieces were extremely important: the RMCA constructed the exhibitions in such a way that the audience would only interpret them in terms of beauty. During a guided tour through the new museum, Dr. Ceuppens stands in front of one of the only intact costumes in the exhibition. “Wooden masks were often stripped from their organic material and thus from their old significations in order to adapt them to European aesthetics,” she explains. Although a lot of researchers are trying to uncover suppressed histories and significations of the objects today, the museum still holds onto this formal approach.

Hannelore Vandenbergen is a fellow anthropologist who is studying the Hutereau-collection. She looks at the same white patched, big eared black mask—a Pongdudu mask. “These masks are the eye catchers of the museum,” she explains. “They are often used as an ‘emblem’ because they are so impressive, but no one really knows the oral history of these objects. Approaching the objects through their aesthetical and material value, the museum will often decide to expose the bigger statues and masks. Rather than using the colonial categorisations and fieldnotes of expedition leaders as guidelines today, hidden historical narratives and new connections should gain our interest.” In her own research, Vandenbergen is interested in the meaning Congolese people give to the objects today, uncovering other significances by listening to oral histories and looking at alternative archives. “I believe that we should treat these objects as social agents themselves and focus on the actors that matter in their existence.”

By the time the museum closed its doors in 2013 for the renovation, the permanent exhibition had not changed since the late 50s.

The resource paradox

The next showroom dubbed The Resource Paradox introduces visitors to the museum’s section on the Congolese economy, which Dr. Ceuppens explains is a continuation of the old museum. In this hall, the collection used to promote Congo’s abundance in resources, in Leopold II’s bid to attract investors and business to the Belgian Congo. Belgian families that have been active in the Congolese economy since colonial times still own companies in sectors such as real estate, mining or the sugar industry, journalist Christophe Le Bec writes in the pan-African weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique.

Congolese natural resources include 167 million hectares of forest and large reserves of minerals like cobalt or uranium. Nevertheless, about 71% of the Congolese people live on less than one dollar a day, according to the United Nations. The museum addresses this disparity by calling it “the resource paradox.” Further down the economy showroom, another caption focusses on the mining activities in Congo. “The gains of mineral resources go to the elite and international companies, but do not contribute to better life circumstances for the population,” one of the captions reads.

As the visitor is able to see on mounted screens when entering the museum, several public and private companies contribute towards funding the RMCA, some of which are the very same firms owned by the aforementioned colonial families. One Belgian company providing funds to the museum is TEXAF, whose office is registered in the capital, as are all of its holdings. The company presents itself as “an investment company that aspires to be one of the main economic players in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Its activities mainly take place in several parts of the DRC: its “industrial ambitions are currently centered on the sandstone quarry in Kinshasa” and “it possesses and develops sizeable real estate assets in Kinshasa.” One of these, called UTEXAFRICA, encompasses 36 villas and 218 apartments, 2,600m² of commercial floor space and a 90,000m² industrial and corporate zone. This sponsor has been producing metals and raw materials in Congo since the early days of the former colony, but neither its name nor its story are mentioned in the showroom.

Another benefactor to the museum is, rather remarkably, Umicore, a company previously named Union Minière. In 1960, this mining company planned on financing a coup d’état on the DRC’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba since they did not support his politics, as René Brion and Jean-Louis Moreau write in their book De la mine à Mars: La genèse d’Umicore. Their plans never took form however since Mobutu Sese Seko seized power before the coup could take place. Sadly, the museum does not provide any visibility nor insight into its sponsors’ history of political intervention, preferring instead to sugar-coat their involvement through dubious claims that “good governance, which is focused on sustainability, could benefit the wellbeing of the region.”

As historian Sarah Van Beurden writes in her book Authentically African: Arts and the transnational politics of Congolese culture, “Far too often, the moment of political independence is portrayed as the end of a process. This approach sets up the failed states narrative which emerged in the 1990s and which condemned many of these new African states as weak, incoherent and failing in comparison with their Western counterparts.” Therefore, the everlasting contribution of the long colonial tradition to this “failure” is now seemingly now downplayed, if not entirely lost and conveniently kept out of sight.

On restitution

A figure with a body of ropes stands in front of a neutral background. Maarten Couttenier wrote extensively on this statue, called EO.0.0.7943 or Kitumba. “It was one of the most reputed idols of the region,” he writes. It was taken by the Belgian trader Alexandre Delcommune in 1878, who used the power assigned to this statue by local chiefs to keep the inhabitants of Boma obedient. In the same year, local chief Ne Kuko demanded that the statue be returned, a request that would lead to an attack on Boma. Five years later, Delcommune brought the statue to Belgium. Two other restitution requests followed, the last of which was in 2016, but none of them proved to be successful. “Instead it featured in major exhibitions in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States,” writes Couttenier. Today, Kitumba is part of the RMCA’s permanent exhibition Unrivalled Art, with no mention whatsoever of it ever being returned to its place of origin.

“Since those who control history are the ones who benefit from it, people should have the right to the facts of their own lives,” Canadian anthropologist Michael Ames argues in his publication Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The anthropology of museums, alluding to the importance of restitution—the return of objects to their original place. “More than 90% of African classical pieces of art are no longer to be found in Africa. They have been stolen during colonisation and now belong to the collection of European institutions.” Taken from an article published in a September issue of De Standaard, this open letter by the decolonial non-profit BAMKO-cran demands that Belgian museums and universities return stolen objects, including human remains. The dialogue on restitution should start as soon as possible, a group of specialists point out in another letter in De Standaard published in October. “Since art, heritage and history are important for emancipation and development, an eternal status quo is unacceptable to that extent.” On this, as on many other points of utmost importance, the RMCA clearly misses an opportunity to make good on what is without a doubt one of Belgium’s darkest spots.

It must be said, however, that the museum has come a long way since the last adaptation of its collection in 1957. The changes made in order to present a “decolonised” vision of Africa include efforts such as the addition of advanced technology, a room on diaspora, a public depot with forbidden statues and, not in the least, a room on Belgium’s colonial history. However, a “decolonised” perspective is far from the museum’s consistent curatorial choice. Collections of objects are still approached in the same way as in colonial times, when they functioned as advertisements for the imperialist project. In working with business partners who have been exploiting Congolese resources since colonial times, the museum clearly chooses its camp, showing its willingness in supporting the reproduction of colonial hierarchy in order to get funds. More importantly however, the RMCA retains its position as an important hub of imagery and knowledge production on Central Africa, thereby maintaining the status quo by taking up a role that, put simply, is no longer theirs to take. And so it is that, despite numerous attempts to influence the museum’s curatorial decision-making, influential voices continue to ask it rejects the structures upon which it is built.