Retelling the story
It’s at least as famous for what it doesn’t tell about the Congo as for what it does. To remedy that, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside of Brussels, will close its doors next July for a three-year renovation. The end goal: to tell the full story of this large, central African nation rather than an ennobled take on Belgium’s days as a colonial power.
Tervuren’s Africa Museum throws open the cellar doors before closing for a revamp and a reconsider of its colonial past
The museum, housed in a palatial building overlooking Tervuren park, was built by King Leopold II to host a 1897 exposition of African curia, showcasing the worthiness of his forays into the “dark continent” to his people. That’s if they weren’t already convinced by the wealth amassed through the country’s exploitation of Congo’s Katanga mines, not to mention its rich rubber resources.
About 100 years later and the colonial days far behind, the African Museum still seemed to stand as a monument to Belgium’s colonial past and found itself much maligned for its apparent one-sided tale of the Congo. It is seen as highlighting Belgium’s halcyon days and ignoring its brutal handling of the natives, which resulted in the estimated death of as many as 10 million Congolese.
The museum has staged a new exhibition in response to what director Guido Gryseels often describes as a new wave of consciousness about Belgium’s role in the Congo. But the renovations will take it a step further: The museum will tell a different story of Africa.
“Here, we see more of a glorification of the colonial days, and we don’t want to do that any longer,” explains Sandra Eelen, exhibition designer at the museum. “We want to get rid of the museum’s colonial stamp.”
It’s a buzzword at the museum when it comes to talk of the renovations. Contextualisation, in practical terms, is about telling the Congolese side of the story. On one wall of a corridor adjoining some of the museum’s 20 or so rooms of treasures from the colony, are the names of the Belgians who died there. “Where are the names of the Congolese who died?” Eelen asks. “There were millions; although no one knows exactly how many.”
One of the museum’s more terrifying exhibits is a statue of a leopard man, looming menacingly over his doomed, human prey. Clothed in leopard skin and with lethal hooks attached to their fingertips, these evil characters from the colony have featured in a range of Belgian comics, including Tintin in the Congo.
Eelen contextualises: “They did exist. They were mainly killing Congolese who collaborated with the colonialists. But it’s a story that has been very blown up and used in many publications. The Congolese hate that we still show this statue. If you tell the whole story, though, then it’s okay to still show it.”
The plan, she explains, is to work with the Congolese to determine the best way to incorporate their side of the story into the museum. Precise plans about how to do this are still in a preliminary stage. One way will certainly be to show a more contemporary Africa, celebrating its colourful music and dress, for example.
Museum of a museum
Visitors to the museum who have marvel at its glorious architecture and quaint cabinets filled with hunting trophies – from stuffed lions to crocodiles – need not fear; the Africa Museum staff plan to preserve this as a nod to the colonial side of the story and, as Eelen explains, a “museum of a museum”.
In telling both sides of the story of the Congo, notwithstanding the Belgian side, preserving this will show an important piece of the African nation’s history. In 1959, the year the Congo won its independence, there were as many as 60,000 Belgians living there. From a Flemish perspective, Culture Minister Joke Schauvliege tells Flanders Today: “The Africa Museum grew out of our colonial past to become a world famous institution. It stands close to us and our cultural history.”
The €60 million renovation is being funded by the federal government and will also see a new building marking the entrance. Through this pavilion, visitors will approach the museum from its cellars and updated facilities, including an auditorium for audiovisual displays. For anyone who has found the museum a patch of themes with a different story in each of its galleries as well as remiss in its recount of the colonial past, the new museum, Eelen concludes, will “tell a more comprehensive story”.
Behind the scenes at the museum
Before the Africa Museum closes its doors in July 2012 for a three-year renovation, it has opened its cellars, where the majority of its treasures can be found. (Only 1% of its vast collection is normally on show at any given time.) If the galleries that make up its present permanent exhibition look overcrowded with stuffed animals, masks and other art work, that’s nothing compared to its underground caverns. Visitors are also treated in this exhibition, titled Uncensored: Vivid Tales from Behind the Scenes, to a host of quirky tales about the museum. Who knew that the stuffed elephant that greets visitors is actually composed of two pachyderm? Or that in a downstairs room are hundreds of elephant skulls all telling a tale to the scientists who study them of the history of Africa’s changing landscape.
An innocuous looking space above the stairs that descend into this cave of wonders once was home to 16,000 dead snakes. Meanwhile, a live one, brought in as a pet by one of the museum’s researchers, escaped from his cage to be eventually found curled cosily around a buffalo head above a heater in the cellar.
The museum also shows some of its more questionable exhibits. An over-excited explorer who came across pieces of a boat in the Congo was convinced he had found the boat of Henry Morgan Stanley, King Leopold II’s henchman in the colony who famously voyaged along the Congo River to find Doctor Livingstone. Alas, diaries of Stanley later revealed that his boat was made of wood and Spanish leather, unlike the metal one now on display.
In the permanent exhibition, the museum also reveals some secrets – from the buffalo whose hair was bulked out thanks to a salon in Tervuren to radioactive minerals stored in a bunker. The king of the jungle has something to hide, too. A lion shot by Belgium’s Baron Lambert looms out of the grass to hide that he is only half stuffed. He once graced the Baron’s living room, where there was apparently not enough space to show him in all his glory.
For the uninitiated, the exhibition will seem rather low impact: red crates dotted seemingly randomly around the museum’s permanent exhibition tell the story. However, it’s worth taking a guide and/or the trouble to read everything carefully as – while it does little to grab the attention of the casual visitor – it contains a rich, vibrant story of life at the museum. And the cellars, once reached, are a wonder to behold.
The museum, often criticised by scholars and the Congolese for some of its more gory artefacts such as the elephant foot umbrella stand (relegated to the basement), sets the record straight as to whether it harbours a collection of stuffed African humans. Although not on display, as this would flout Congolese tradition, there is the odd mummy or two.
Vivid Tales from Behind the Scenes
Until 8 July 2012
Royal Museum for Central Africa
Leuvensesteenweg 13, Tervuren
The other side of the museum’s story
Aside from its celebrated role as a record of Belgium’s colonial history, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren provides a wealth of research material for linguists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and a host of other academics seeking to unravel secrets of the continent.
Busying away at the labyrinth-like museum and working in close collaboration with institutions in Africa are, for example, climatologists who are examining its scores of elephant skulls. “We have skulls of savannah and wood elephants. Scientists found out that those in the collection we have here are of the same species,” explains Sandra Eelen, exhibition designer at the museum.
This allows scientists to extrapolate about the way these mammals moved between landscapes as rises in temperature and changes in land use for, say, agriculture, forced them to switch habitats over time.
Meanwhile, zoologists are busy classifying species. This, says the museum, gives them useful insights into biodiversity in the region and how Africa can better sustain its forests, which are crucial for its ecosystems.
Added to that are the hoards of scientists who, using the museum’s archives and work on the ground in Africa, examine colonial history, rituals, languages and music. This allows them to raise awareness of, the museum says, a “more accurate and nuanced image of modern-day Africa”.