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Belgium’s Africa Museum reopens to confront its pro-colonial past

AFP PHOTO /VIRGINIE LEFOUR / BELGA. | The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, with its pirogue boat being moved for renovation, on February 17, 2014.

Belgium's Africa Museum reopened on Sunday after five years of renovations designed to modernise the museum following years of criticism for its pro-colonial propaganda. Despite this, the DRC has still called for the return of artefacts.

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The museum, called the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) and full of objects and stuffed wildlife, was often criticised for ignoring the brutalities of King Leopold II's fiefdom, whose troops collected the hands of those who resisted slave labour at a time when millions of Congolese people are estimated to have died.

Many of the artefacts remain, but there is more commentary from African people on video screens, displays by Congolese artists, one including a 120-member family tree, in a bid to centralise Africans rather than Europeans.

Colonial history is now concentrated in one gallery, rather than dominating the whole museum as it ded before the modernisation. Located in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, it also deals with current issues facing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its diaspora.

"We also assume our responsibility that for more than 60 years, we've diffused, we've disseminated an image of a superior, Western way of thinking to African cultures," said museum director Guido Gryseels.

In the large rotunda, a statue remains of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes with a plaque that reads: "Belgium brings civilisation to Congo". But now the room is dominated by a giant wooden sculpture of an African man's head, sculptured by an artist born in DRC.

Many Belgians remain ignorant of their country's harsh rule in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the late 19th century, even though Belgium's colonial past made the small European country one of the world's most successful trading economies.

The €66 million renovation to the Africa museum, set in a palatial, neoclassical building in a landscaped park just outside the capital, hopes to confront Belgians with their colonial past.

DRC demands the return of artefacts

But activists says that by containing stolen artefacts it represents a continuation of colonialism. "There is no decolonisation without restitution," said Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, who was born in the DRC before moving to Belgium, where she authored a book on racism.

DRC has announced that the country will soon demand the restitution of its artefacts. "The request for restitution will obviously be on the table," said President Joseph Kabila in an interview with Belgian newspaper Le Soir, published on Friday.

"We are waiting for the end of the works and the opening of our own museum. One month before the end of the work, which is scheduled for the month of June, there will be an official request [for restitution]," he added.

The debate about whether colonial-era art should be returned home has intensified after French President Emmanuel Macron promised to return some African art to its countries, of which 85 to 90 percent is located outside the continent. Germany also published guidelines for considering repatriation this year.

Congolese died of influenza while exhibited in a human zoo

In Belgium, where around 250.000 people of African descent (mostly Congolese) live, the debate has grown stronger in recent weeks in the wake of RMCA’s reopening. Gryseels said the museum was open to returning some artefacts.

Belgium's King Philippe had been expected to attend the museum's inauguration on Saturday, but declined due to the controversy.

Another contentious issue involves seven Congolese who died of influenza when they were "imported" for exhibition in a human zoo, a practice that continued until DRC’s independence in 1960. A plaque was put up at the location of the human zoo, where the RMCA has since been built, while a new exhibit in the museum casts the shadows of names of Congolese people who died in Belgium over those of Belgians that perished in Africa.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS & AFP)

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