Africa Museum, Tervuren
Reopened December 2018
Across Europe, ethnographic museums have been questioned, and in some cases denounced, for their associations with colonialism. No museum was as deeply associated with imperial rule as that founded near Brussels in 1898 as the Museum of the Congo, subsequently the Royal Museum for Central Africa – and now known as the Africa Museum.
Like the territory itself, the institution was initially a personal enterprise of Leopold II. Its exhibitions celebrated the Congo Free State, a regime notorious in its own time for being at once exceptionally brutal and notably lucrative. For the better part of a century its displays suggested that Africans were superstitious and barbaric. Their arts were, at best, fetishised and exoticised alongside displays about the resources and the development of the colony.
The museum’s renovation has involved a reckoning with this history, a commitment to honesty regarding the violence of the past and searching consideration of what exactly a 21st-century museum built on these foundations can and should offer Belgian citizens, a cosmopolitan European public and members of the African diaspora today.
The new museum tells the story of the foundations of the colony, and its own history as a project of colonial museology. It foregrounds the violence and the challenges of the period of decolonisation, through a diversity of voices and a rich range of exhibits and representations, opening up a window on modern and contemporary Africa, and on the Congo in particular, a country made and still being remade by Africans, not now an outsiders’ construct.
The Africa Museum is a balancing act. It engages unstintingly with profoundly difficult histories. Yet it also makes the most of astonishing collections, with informative displays across biodiversity, subsistence, ritual, ceremony, African modernity and urbanisation, migration and memory. Most importantly, it offers a plurality of African perspectives, and suggests that the decolonisation of the museum is work in progress.
Nicholas Thomas is the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
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