New look and a new focus for Africa Museum

Summary

One of the country’s top museum attractions and leading scientific institutions has reopened after major renovation works, and some soul-searching

‘We want to show the whole picture’

One of the country’s foremost scientific institutions and most popular museums, the Royal Museum of Central Africa, has reopened after a five-year, €66 million renovation in Tervuren, the Flemish Brabant town just outside Brussels.

Before it closed in 2013, the Africa Museum was known as Europe’s “last colonial museum”. Many of the displays propagated a colonialist message and reflected outdated views on the African continent and black people, from when Belgium was a colonial power with colonies in what are today the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

According to the museum’s management, the permanent exhibition of the revamped Africa Museum is now squarely focused on modern-day Africa rather than on a continent seen through the eyes of a colonising force.

“We pass from an exhibition of dead objects in an Africa without history and without human beings to a living exhibition on contemporary Africa enlivened by the presence of Africans and individuals of African descent,” said Bambi Ceuppens, the museum’s chief curator, speaking at a press conference.

Colonialist message in context

The colonialist message that suffused the stately 1910 building commissioned by Leopold II, the former king who made DR Congo his personal fiefdom, hasn’t been erased because much of the building is protected heritage, but it’s now being contextualised with placards and signs.

The permanent collection of the revamped museum is now focused on rituals and ceremonies, contemporary music and languages, landscapes, biodiversity and minerals from central Africa – all themes around which the museum’s vast scientific arm carries out research. Many of the rooms about contemporary Africa have video installations and interactive displays.

We pass from an exhibition of dead objects in an Africa without history and without human beings to a living exhibition on contemporary Africa

- Chief curator Bambi Ceuppens

“We want to show the whole picture,” said Tine Huyse, curator of the permanent exhibition on landscapes and biodiversity. “This means you won’t see our classical dioramas any longer but instead we focus on the dynamic relationship between man, animal, plant and climate because nothing stands on its own.”

The revamped museum also features several works by contemporary artists born or based in the DR Congo like Aimé Mpane, Michèle Magema and Freddy Tsimba as well as a “Afropea” gallery meant to serve as an exhibition space, meeting place and documentation centre for the African diaspora.

Although Comraf, an advisory group made up of African associations and museum staff, was invited to comment on the renovation plans, the museum has attracted criticism for not sufficiently involving the African diaspora and not heeding its recommendations.

About 2% of the country’s population, or 220,000 people, are of sub-Saharan African descent. Forty percent of this population has Congolese roots.

Photo: RMCA, Tervuren/Jo Van de Vijver