I recently revisited Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa for the first time since I went there on a class trip more than 25 years ago, when my family lived here for a time. Turns out I hadn't missed much.
Housed in a splendid Louis XIV-style palace on the outskirts of Brussels, the museum has proclaimed the glories of Belgian rule in the Congo for more than a century. And during that time, its impressive collection has remained largely unchanged. Imposing gilded statues depict Belgium's influence in Central Africa. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," reads the inscription on one, showing a priest ministering to an adoring Pygmy tribesman. Others illustrate the "security" and "well-being" that were brought to the natives by their colonial masters.
I did notice one new feature, though: a small posterboard sign that appeared earlier this year, with no fanfare, in one of the more controversial exhibits. The "Gallery of Remembrance" is a shrine to Belgians who died while serving in Central Africa. Its walls are painted with the names of some 1,500 fallen military officers, bureaucrats, traders and pioneers. A bronze plaque salutes the martyred leaders of an anti-slavery campaign. But now, the new sign offers a one-paragraph addendum in French, Dutch and English:
"The attentive visitor," it reads, "will not fail to notice that, at the time, no need was felt to question the Belgian presence in Central Africa. There was no mention of the Congolese victims, for instance. The viewpoint is exclusively European and concentrates on a few historical episodes. The underlying reality of colonial events was completely ignored. The memorial to the campaigns against slavery, unveiled in 1959, is a rather late example of mythmaking."
For the first time since it was founded in 1897 by King Leopold II, the museum is finally getting ready to recognize that "underlying reality" and "mythmaking." It may take an unusually "attentive visitor" to find it, but the temporary plaque is a small step in a two-year project aimed at transforming the institution to acknowledge the brutal realities of Belgium's colonial history that have come to light in recent years. It is the first public measure the country is taking to make its citizens aware of the atrocities committed a century ago.
These long overdue plans have stirred controversy. Some Belgians argue that changing the museum too much will obliterate what they see as their country's honorable role in improving life in Central Africa. Others say the institution, considered one of the foremost of its kind in the world, should be preserved as it is -- as the embodiment of a particular kind of worldview during an important period of history. I have a more postmodern view: The best thing to do with this museum might be to display it inside another museum.
Once you know the history behind the collection -- as I do now but didn't as a grade-schooler -- there would seem to be no choice but to change it. In 1998, writer Adam Hochschild published the best-selling "King Leopold's Ghost," a book that vividly described what the museum does not: how Leopold, a first cousin of Britain's Queen Victoria, persuaded the world to let him take personal control over a domain nearly one-fourth the size of the United States; how he duped America and Britain into thinking he would establish a free-trade zone in Central Africa, "civilize" the natives and fight the scourge of Arab slave-trading; and how, instead, he
established a brutal regime that exploited the territory's population and natural resources for his personal benefit.
Hochschild's book revealed how mercenary soldiers forced Congolese men into the jungle to gather wild rubber for the bicycle and automobile industries. Those who refused or failed to meet their quotas were liable to have their hands chopped off or to be whipped nearly to death; some were simply shot dead. Others went into hiding, leaving their farms to fail and their families to starve. There never was any anti-slavery campaign. In fact, Hochschild estimates that Leopold's quarter-century reign of terror caused the deaths of 10 million Africans.
Suddenly an inconspicuous cardboard sign doesn't seem adequate. Especially since the rest of the museum today looks much the same as it did when it was built -- even if it no longer features reconstructed Congolese villages with real tribesmen on display.
Director Guido Gryseels has already launched the effort to overhaul the museum with several exhibits running through the summer entitled "The Africans Have Their Say," featuring the work of contemporary African artists and photographers. Gryseels calls the museum's current design "paternalistic" and says the campaign he's started will give the collection a modern, "multidisciplinary theme." Out will go the bland, detailed presentations on export crops (installed decades ago to convince Belgians their colony was worth having), and in will come a more holistic "historical journey," synthesizing social and natural sciences with art, culture and such contemporary notions as "sustainable development."
"The big controversy," Gryseels conceded to me recently, "comes with how do we deal with our colonial past? A lot of people who worked in the colonies are sensitive." In fact, when translated editions of his book were published in Belgium, Hochschild was met with anger from many quarters, especially from associations of people who had worked in the colonial administration, or their descendants. These same people are not likely to be pleased that their government, which owns the museum, will soon be accusing them or their relatives of having taken part in genocide. They "get emotional," Gryseels acknowledged, and argue that Belgium had a civilizing influence on the Congo, helping provide infrastructure, schools and medicine. Somehow they overlook that when Belgium pulled up stakes and left the Congo in 1960, it left behind only 14 African university graduates and a continuing legacy of political mayhem.
What the museum hopes to do, Gryseels said of the colonial atrocities, is "recognize that [they] happened and . . . provide the context. Some people will walk out and say that Leopold was a murderer -- other people may recognize the vision he had."
Belgium is not the first nation to have to confront a dark part of its past. To be fair, few other European countries have come completely clean on their colonial records. France and Britain have long accepted their responsibility to help former colonies, but they do little to highlight atrocities. Germany only recently acknowledged and apologized for its massacre of Herero tribes in 1904-08 in what is now Namibia.
Belgium has come later than most to its face-off with history, even though this history was never a complete secret. It was a matter of public record, though that record was sometimes hard to find. Over the years, any atrocities were erased from official history, not taught in schools, not acknowledged as part of the national memory. So a full reckoning now is bound to be painful.
And not everyone sees the need for contrition. At a press conference Gryseels held to announce the museum's makeover, I overheard two Belgian journalists complaining about the changes, deriding them as "politically correct" leftist revisionism. A comment written by a Belgian in the museum guest book pleads, "Don't change it too much! It is a magnificent museum of which Belgians can be proud."
Perhaps there's something to the notion that the museum in its current state provides its own unique lessons. As offensive as it appears when viewed in the light of modern knowledge and sensibilities, it's fair to ask whether, from a historical perspective, overhauling it is the right approach. It's one thing to revisit the record and make it a more accurate reflection of reality, but it's another to ignore different versions of what happened. Like it or not, the museum is a kind of time capsule that perfectly illustrates the evil of colonialism and the paternalism and racism that allowed it to exist.
Gryseels' planned "historical journey," on the other hand, sounds suspiciously like so many modern "interactive" museums that overdo the computer animation and the Disney-fied dinosaur bones, where the largest exhibits always seem to be the gift shops.
The dilemma posed by the project is summed up in a painting, specially commissioned for the museum, by Congolese artist Cheri Samba, whose works combine a playful, cartoonish visual style with often gruesome political and social commentary. Entitled "Reorganisation," it shows Gryseels watching a group of Africans drag a particularly patronizing sculpture out of the museum while a clutch of Belgians tugs desperately in the opposite direction. "We cannot accept that this work should leave the museum," the Belgians are protesting. "It is what has made us what we are today." To which the painted Gryseels responds: "It's true that it's sad, but in fact the museum must be completely reorganized."
Maybe so. As I walked through the museum's dusty and dated galleries, I couldn't help agreeing that a makeover is necessary. It's a travesty that there is no mention of the millions of Africans who died so that the treasures visitors ooh and aah over -- the stuffed animals, the rocks and minerals -- could be brought to Belgium. I watched groups of museum-goers who hadn't read "King Leopold's Ghost" touring the exhibits and listening to guides who never mentioned the horrific truth that lies behind the display cases, and I felt they urgently needed some context.
Still, part of me wants to keep this bizarre, offensive time capsule just as it is, to preserve it as an example of the kind of imperial hubris that reigned in turn-of-the-20th-century Europe -- not as a tribute, but as an artifact.