Monday, February 21, 2005

L'Afrique, C'est Chic

Here's an article I wrote last week for The Wall Street Journal Europe, on interesting changes being made at Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Haunted by King Leopold's Ghost --- Belgium's Africa Museum Confronts Colonial Deeds; Tour of a Work in Progress

By Craig Winneker
Special to The Wall Street Journal
18 February 2005
The Wall Street Journal Europe
P3
English
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Tervuren, Belgium -- THE LAST TIME Louise Lion made the 50-kilometer trip from her home in Charleroi, Belgium, to the outskirts of Brussels to visit the Royal Museum for Central Africa was as a student in 1953. She recently returned for a second look -- and the changes she found came as something of a shock. "This is very surprising," she said, pausing on a bench. "I am learning a lot of things they did not teach us in school."

No one would be more pleased with her reaction than Guido Gryseels, who became the museum's director in 2001 and two years ago embarked on a redesign of the state-owned institution -- the first since it was founded in 1897. Two exhibitions that consume more than half of the museum's vast floor space offer a midstream glimpse of this renovation, which won't be completed for another five years.

The exhibits, which will run most of this year, aren't just giving a much-needed makeover to one of the world's most important collections of Africana. They also are spurring a long-dormant debate about Belgium's role as a colonial power. The small country came late to the colonialism game, stayed in it longer than most of its European neighbors, and played it by some of the harshest rules imaginable. It has been slow to reconsider this portion of its history.

There may be no more interesting time to see the museum than now, when it still has one foot in the past and one in the future. Antiquated attitudes still confront the visitor immediately inside the enormous front doors. In the entry hall, gilded statues depict Belgium's supposed influence in Central Africa. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," reads an inscription on one showing a priest ministering to an adoring Pygmy tribesman.

But soon the new temporary exhibitions take over, and a more modern sensibility prevails as visitors are led on a journey from before the colonial period to independence and beyond. Return visitors to the museum -- even those who saw it as recently as a year ago -- will be surprised by the drastic overhaul. What once was a dusty collection of glass cases and obscure agricultural charts has become a lively exploration of colonialism.

Perhaps most importantly, the museum now addresses the question of whether Belgium is responsible for genocide -- the deaths of millions of Congolese killed through forced labor, starvation and disease from 1885 to 1910, when the rubber and ivory trades were at their frenzied peak. The Congo was Belgian property from 1885 until 1960, first as the personal fief of the country's then-king, Leopold II, and then as a colony controlled by the government. The king started the museum in 1897 as an advertisement for the colony, and many exhibits touted its economic benefits to Belgium. The present museum opened in 1910 and was little changed for decades.

The 1998 book "King Leopold's Ghost" by American writer Adam Hochschild was a turning point in how Belgium's colonial role has been viewed. The book alleges that as many as 10 million natives died during Leopold's stewardship of the Congo, calling it one of the worst genocides in history.

Mr. Gryseels says the controversy surrounding "King Leopold's Ghost" spurred the decision to reshape the museum. But the documentation he has produced conspicuously avoids discussion of the book, and so do the new exhibits. In places, the museum tackles the question of genocide and brutality head-on, but at the same time challenges the accuracy of some of the numbers, seeking a delicate historical balance.

The bigger of the two exhibitions, "Memory of Congo: the Colonial Era," attempts to come to grips with this history, and to put it in the larger context of European imperialism -- highlighting its positive as well as negative implications. "For us," Mr. Gryseels says, "this is the first step in the renovation -- to look back on our colonial past in a critical way, not only to the eyes of the Belgians but also to the eyes of the Congolese."

Especially interesting are videos showing Belgians and Congolese -- administrators, soldiers, farmers, workers -- recounting personal experiences. (Visitors can listen in French, Dutch or English.)

The last section of the exhibition, "Independence," is lit in bright red, adorned with huge pictures of Kinshasans celebrating their freedom in 1960, and punctuated by African music piped in. Off to one side is a replica of a period Belgian living room. An old console TV shows footage of Belgium's then-sovereign, the young Baudouin, relinquishing control of the colony to the Congolese. It is as close as you can get to reliving history.

The second exhibition, "Congo: Nature & Culture," offers another sneak preview of the Africa Museum of the future, with an emphasis on environment and biodiversity and "the links between people and nature." Its exhibits are showcased in deep, rain-forest green with authentic-looking wooden poles that practically scream "sustainable development."

The museum's permanent collection also has undergone changes. The Gallery of Remembrance, its most controversial room, still honors the Belgian pioneers who died in the Congo and includes an imposing bronze statue of Leopold II, unmistakable with his squared-off beard and perpetual glower. But now there is acknowledgment of the many Africans who died during the colonial period. A recently added plaque reminds visitors the gallery was built in a different era and reflected its outlook, thus "there was no mention of the Congolese victims."

The room's layout has been changed so that what was a somber shrine, closed off at the end of a hallway, is open for visitors to pass through on the way to the new exhibitions. Leopold -- whom Mr. Gryseels was thinking of consigning to the attic two years ago -- glowers in a corner.

Eventually, the exhibits at the entrance will be removed or shown with explanations to put them in context, the museum says. More changes are coming, and the debate over their implications is just beginning. An entry in the exhibition's guest book, written by Bernard de Gerlache, head of the Belgo-African Chamber of Commerce, neatly captures the challenge facing the museum as it walks a fine historical line. "A leopard," the inscription reads, quoting a Congolese proverb, "cannot change its spots."

---
Memory of Congo: the Colonial Era
Congo: Nature & Culture
Until Oct. 9.
Leuvensesteenweg 13, Tervuren, Belgium
(Tram 44 from central Brussels)

2 comments:

Megs said...

I found your blog through a co-worker of mine, David Farmer. I like it a lot!!!

TheMalau said...

It was about time Belgium faced the atrocities Leopold inflicted on my country.