“Better late than never”


The decision to renovate and expand the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren was originally taken in 2006. Last month, the plans were presented. The museum will close and the works will begin in November

The Africa museum in Tervuren presents its plans for a long-delayed makeover

It’s common enough to find a renovation project running past its projected deadline. It’s less common to come across one that takes years to even get started. But that’s been the case for the Royal Museum for Central Africa (KMMA) in Tervuren. The decision to renovate and expand the museum and grounds was originally taken in 2006. Last month, the plans were presented. The museum will close and the works will begin in November.

Back in 2010, the museum’s director, Guido Gryseels, explained the problem on Radio 2: “The museum hasn’t changed since 1957. The permanent installations are still a reflection of Belgium’s vision of Africa from before 1960. The infrastructure is absolutely not suitable for contemporary requirements. There are no conference or meeting rooms and very few audio-visual resources.”

At that time, the plan was for the museum to close in the summer of 2012 for 18 months for renovations under the supervision of architect Stephane Beel. Delayed for more than a year, the plan now is for the museum to close in November and re-open in the second half of 2016 – a closure twice as long as originally planned. The cost of the operation remains fixed at €66.5 million, of which €51 million goes to building costs.

“Better late than never,” was the conclusion of Servais Verherstraeten, secretary of state at the federal Buildings Agency, speaking at the official presentation of the project. The agency is providing €17 million in financing, or 10% of its investment budget over the three-year period. “Patience is a virtue,” he said, addressing Gryseels, “but we may have put your patience to the test. Therefore I am proud to be able to present these plans here today.”

The KMMA began its life in 1897 as the Palace of the Colonies, built by King Leopold II for the Brussels International Exposition on what was still his private domain in Tervuren. The building we see today was designed in 1904 as a permanent museum and scientific institute and was opened in 1910, a year after Leopold’s death.

The museum’s collection is breathtakingly huge: What visitors see is but 5% of what they have. That includes more than 10 million zoological specimens, among them six million insects. There are 8,000 musical instruments, 2,500 hours of recordings of African music, half a million films and photographs and 56,000 wood samples.

The plans drawn up by Beel and his associates include a new tower to house the museum’s records, which includes the complete archives of Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr Livingston, I presume” fame). The main building, which affords a magnificent panorama of Tervuren Park, will be entirely given over to exhibitions: The shop and restaurant will move to a new reception pavilion between the main building and the Kolonienpaleis, linked to the main museum by an underground passage. The Kolonienpaleis will become a congress and media centre.

“We’re often referred to as the last colonial museum in the world,” Gryseels said. “For a great many Belgian children, a visit to this museum is their first encounter with Africa. So we need our museum to meet the needs of the 21st century. To maintain the unique atmosphere, we’ll be holding on to the old display cases, supplemented by a new modular system. We’re currently working out a whole new scenography and timeline, with four main themes: Central African society, history, resources and landscape/biodiversity. The aim is to turn the last colonial museum into a contemporary museum of African art.”

During the closure, the museum’s scientific work will continue, with staff rehoused in the research centre elsewhere in the park. Most of the museum’s other staff will be found positions elsewhere until the reopening. Much of the collection, meanwhile, will take off for other parts of the world.

“There was a lot of demand for our collection, at home and overseas,” Gryseels said. “Next year part of the collection will be in Ostend and Charleroi. The famous elephant will be temporarily rehoused in Bozar.” The work of school groups – an important part of the museum’s function – will carry on with the help of Bozar, the BELvue museum and the Museum for Natural Sciences, all in Brussels.

Items from KMMA’s collection will also be featured at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Musée Dapper in Paris.


“Better late than never”

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