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Belgian Museum Wants to Set Record Straight on Colonial Past

October 7, 2003

Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has been criticized for glorifying its colonial past and portraying Africa in a false light. That may change if the director pushes through plans for a total revamp.

One of the offerings on show at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.Image: Presse

Belgium’s popular Royal Museum for Central Africa, located on the outskirts of Brussels, boasts extensive displays of carved wooden masks, stuffed animals, musical instruments and souvenirs as well as a glimpse into Africa’s diverse flora and fauna.

But for present day Belgians looking for a critical view on their country’s 80-year rule of what novelist Joseph Conrad called the "Heart of Darkness," this is obviously the wrong place.

A large gold statue adorning the Royal Museum’s domed marble foyer bears an engraved plaque with the words, "Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo".

The inscription encapsulates more than anything else the image that has come to symbolize Congo for many Belgians – a primitive, undeveloped African backwater pushed towards modernity with roads, hospitals and railway lines provided by a generous government in Brussels who took over the Free Congo state from Belgium's King Leopold II in 1908.

Lopsided presentation of history

It’s these outdated ideas that Guido Gryseels, the Royal Museum’s director, believes are the reasons time seems to have stood still in this museum since being built in 1898 by Leopold II. The king inaugurated the museum following a exposition celebrating Leopold’s rule over the vast African territory and his commercial exploitation of it.

Opfer des Völkermordes in Ruanda Vorwürfe gegen Frankreich
genocide in Rwanda.Image: AP

Even today among the museum's colorful exhibits, there is no mention of Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, the painful birth of the present day Democratic Republic of Congo, or the genocidal horror in Rwanda (photo).

"The museum presented the story that the white men went to the Congo to civilize the society there and that the Congolese were a wild horde that rampaged through the region with spears and shields and needed to be civilized," Gryseels told Deutsche Welle. "That’s how we imagined it and therefore we admired the missionaries and officials who went there to work. Of course that was a very one-sided perception."

Correcting a historical distortion

Gryseels first visited the Royal Museum for Central Africa as a seven year old, when Congo was still a Belgian colony. But it was only during postgraduate studies in Australia that he first came into direct contact with Africans, learned about them first hand and befriended them. The experience was to leave a lasting mark.

Gryseels now wants to set the historical record on Belgium’s colonial past straight in a major exhibition set to open in 2005. Leopold’s II Africa temple, which presents the conquest of Congo in the 19th century as a heroic battle of the Belgians against Arabic slave-traders, is slated to undergo a rehaul both in terms of content and design by 2010, with an international commission overseeing the transformation.

Gryseels' project faces resistance

But not everyone is comfortable with Gryseels’ planned project and his attempt at a revised interpretation of history.

"Every time I give an interview such as this one, I receive 20 letters a day from people who worked in the colonial era," Gryseels said. "They tell me: ‘for heaven’s sake – how dare you criticize the colonial period! We toiled away for several years and often under difficult conditions. And the Congo was in a much better condition in 1960 than it is in today’."

Maurice Lenain, who worked as chief administrator in Congo’s Northeast province from 1945 to 1960, still defends the policies of Leopold II, whose spirit pervades the museum. "Belgium took over Congo in 1908. At the time there were 300 kilometers of railway lines. When we left the country in 1960, there were 5,000 to 6,000 kilometers of them. 150,000 kilometers of road were built, there were 30,000 hospitals – in a country where there wasn’t a single one 80 years ago," he told Deutsche Welle.

"The Belgian colonial officials shouldn’t be ashamed of what they did in Congo. The millions who are supposed to have died – didn’t exist," he added.

Tangible signs of change in Belgium

There are signs that Belgium may finally be prepared to come to grips with its past.

Last year author Adam Hochschild released the book King Leopold’s Ghost, which portrayed Leopold II as a rapacious ruler who plundered Congo’s natural resources and treated it as his private fiefdom. He wrote that about ten million Congolese perished under his rule.

Belgian society was stunned.

In February last year, the Belgian government also admitted its role in the 1961 assassination of Patrick Lumumba, independent Congo’s first prime minister and offered a belated apology.

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