Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels and the Colonial Perspective

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels is at the centre of a debate about how to present the complex legacy of the colonial past and the ethics of cultural ownership ('The plunder years: culture and the colony', Irish Times Mar 25, 2014). The country’s Royal Museum of Central Africa is closing for a three-year renovation, precipitating discussions about the redisplay of the items it contains:
The grand, neoclassical building was built on the outskirts of Brussels by King Leopold II in the late 19th century as a monument to the Belgian Congo. The project was originally intended to be temporary – the Brussels International Exhibition of 1897 was designed to celebrate the newly acquired empire in the Congo, with real-life African villagers brought to Belgium for the event. But a permanent museum to the Congo was built on the site, and its collection gradually increased as the Belgian colony expanded. The packed boats that docked in Antwerp provided a constant provision of treasures and plunders from the Congo. Even by 1910, the Belgian empire was attracting international criticism, albeit by countries that were themselves involved in colonisation. Leopold II had edged into the “great game” of European expansion in Africa in the late 1870s, anxious to put the relatively new country of Belgium on the map. At huge personal expense, the king engaged a number of individuals to navigate the competitive field of international diplomacy to stake his claim to the yet unclaimed wild landscape in central Africa. Figures such as journalist-cum-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whose discovery of Dr David Livingstone propelled him to stardom, helped Leopold tame a territory that soon spanned an area 80 times the size of Belgium. Leopold never visited the colony. Congo’s extensive rubber resources were the driving force of the colony’s expansion, with slave labour enforced on the native Congolese. A failure to fulfil rubber quotas led to murder and mutilation, with the severing of hands becoming a horrific symbol of the Belgian project. Some estimates put the death toll at up to 10 million.
The Museum of Central Africa maps the history of this period of Belgium’s past and the presentation of the objects still reflect the original colonial perspective. 

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