BRUSSELS — The years-long renovation of Belgium’s grand museum devoted to Central Africa was intended to overhaul an institution that was packed with racist images of Africans as savage, sexualized creatures, in exhibits barely touched since the heyday of the country’s domination of Congo. Now its reopening has ignited an angry debate here about whether the country has done enough — or too much — to own up to its past.
Celebrities have said they knew little growing up about Belgium’s violent history in Congo, learning only of the “civilizing mission” the museum once focused on. Defenders of colonial rule have said the new museum is overly apologetic and plays down the benefits of Belgian state-building in Congo. African expatriate communities in Belgium say the renovation didn’t go far enough. Even a U.N. human rights commission has weighed in.
The controversy shows the raw emotions still swirling around the rule of Congo by Belgium, a nation of 11 million where most white families have ancestors who were involved in the colonial project. Belgian King Leopold II took the entire territory as his personal fiefdom starting in 1885 — an enterprise that historians say was violent even by the standards of the era. To the extent Leopold is remembered abroad, it’s for the bloodiness of his reign in Africa. In Belgium, however, his bearded visage still stares down from pedestals in parks and plazas.
At the newly renamed Africa Museum — an ornate palace down a broad, beech-lined avenue on the outskirts of Brussels — curators struggled with how to modernize exhibits in a place where racism is literally built into the building, in the form of carvings and murals of eroticized Africans on the walls. Belgian heritage laws forbade any change to the building’s structure, even if the exhibits within it could be revised.
Museum leaders say they did their best. The displays in place since the former Royal Museum for Central Africa reopened in December after its five-year revamp present the story of Africa as beginning long before European colonists invaded. The narrative no longer emphasizes the benefits for Africans of colonial rule. And some of the artifacts on display — most of them from the old collection — no longer say they were given by Congolese subjects “in gratitude” to their Belgian rulers.
Some halls were redone altogether. One is devoted to life before the Europeans, another to the slave trade and the deprivations of colonial life. Yet another is focused on rituals of everyday life in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the three modern countries where Belgium once ruled. An entire room in the basement is filled with racist statues on display in a kind of hall of shame, including a black man wearing a leopard skin about to attack another black man lying on the ground.
“When I arrived here 18 years ago, the permanent exhibit had not changed for 60 years, even since the independence of Congo” in 1960, said Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. “Belgium came to terms very late with its colonial past.”
Gryseels tried to find ways to address parts of the building that couldn’t be removed, including by etching the names of some of the Congolese who died during colonial rule on a window in front of a wall memorializing Belgians, so that when the sun shines, the Congolese victims’ names are projected onto the original memorial.
In a country as small as Belgium, the museum has a major role in shaping the nation’s attitudes about the past. Generations of Belgian schoolchildren have filtered past the cavernous glass cases of crocodiles, gemstones, ritual masks and other artifacts from the vast collection, most of which was acquired during Belgian conquest and colonial rule.
The new exhibits seek to present the same objects with a different emphasis.
“When I arrived here, it was very paternalistic in spirit,” Gryseels said. “People had really colonialistic attitudes. They were showing an Africa we don’t want to show anymore.”
Leopold’s dominion over Congo was so harsh it inspired Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, “Heart of Darkness,” and international condemnation. Many historians estimate that millions of Congolese died in the first decades of Belgian colonial rule from violence, starvation and disease.
The colonial system promoted a type of apartheid; nearly no native Congolese had opportunities for higher education, for example. And its assumptions lingered: As recently as 1958, the Belgian government organized a Congolese human zoo in the shadow of the Atomium, a Space Age monument that is now a Brussels symbol.
The renovation, predictably, has taken flak from critics on both sides.
One major objection is the lack of people of African descent on the staff of a museum devoted to the study of Africa. Gryseels said that 8 percent of the museum’s scientists are African.
“That’s not bad, but we have to do more,” he said.
Others say the museum is still working within its old colonial constructs.
“There are the same mental categories as before,” said Gratia Pungu, who served on an advisory committee for the renovation and said she believes the museum remains a “cabinet of curiosities,” mixing displays testifying to Congo’s mineral wealth with masks and modern African art.
Some activists in Belgium’s African diaspora community say the museum reflects perceptions in Belgian society as a whole. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders dressed in blackface in 2015, for instance, something critics said was a sign of widespread racial insensitivity here. About 2 percent of Belgian residents are estimated to be ethnically sub-Saharan African.
“In Belgium, you often hear people talking about the positives and negatives of colonization. People don’t take the whole machine on. You don’t hear people talking about the positives and negatives of the Nazi system,” said Aliou Baldé, a member of an organization called Colonial Memories that offers walking tours of Brussels to teach about the colonial past.
“It’s very emotional,” he said. “It’s people’s grandmothers and grandfathers.”
Others agree that the issue is emotional — and say that the museum needs to do less apologizing for Belgium’s past.
“If you present Belgian colonialism, you must do it factually,” said Robert Devriese, a former Belgian diplomat who is the managing director of the Royal Belgian Overseas Union, a group devoted to defending the interests of people with connections to colonialism. “Negative, why not? But also the positive.”
He said that the new museum focuses too much on violence and death in colonial-era Congo.
“In three generations’ time, we managed to make it the wealthiest country. It was an area that wasn’t even in the Middle Ages,” he said. “If the Congo is still a state today, if it hasn’t fallen to pieces after all that happened, it’s because of Leopold II.”
The unresolved questions have drawn the attention of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where experts working on a report about conditions of people of African descent living in Belgium said last month that the museum’s renovation “has not gone far enough.”
“The Working Group notes the importance of removing all colonial propaganda and accurately presenting the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial past,” the experts said in a statement.
The pageantry surrounding the reopening of the museum has also raised questions about the provenance of its collection of Central African artifacts, which museum leaders boast is the biggest in the world. Congolese officials say they plan to request the repatriation of some of the artifacts, a step Gryseels said he is willing to consider.
Overall, he said, he hopes the museum will live up to its new goals.
“It’s not just about the colonial past,” he said. “It’s about how we deal with Africans, and about treating people as equals.”