Belgium’s Africa Museum used to showcase statues of Congolese people, regarded as racist, that were once part of the permanent exhibition.
Pieces like the Leopard Man, men with spears and women almost naked were on permanent display at the Africa Museum in Tervuren for schoolchildren on educational tours to look at
After facing years of heavy criticism nationally and internationally, the museum just outside Brussels allegedly worked with a group of experts from the African diaspora in Belgium to rethink the controversial statues on display.
The museum traces its origins back to when King Leopold II set up the International Exposition of 1897. As part of that, 267 Congolese men, women and children were taken by force to Belgium and exhibited to the public in fenced fake villages on the site where the museum now stands.
When Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands in the 19th Century, the Western nations’ “scramble for Africa” was in full throttle. King Leopold II wanted his own slice of the continent, but without government backing, he had to win over investors and the public.
The “human zoo” was a tool to convince visitors that Belgium had a duty to bring civilization to the African country. The exposition was a huge success and so began Belgium’s long and violent history in the Congo.
The museum is now marking its 125th year. It is also five years since it underwent a massive renovation, where it removed problematic statues and changed the labelling around objects that created a negative stereotype about Africa.
Guido Gryseels the director of the museum until his retirement at the age of 70, and is said to be largely responsible for ushering in change.
Visitor numbers have improved since the revamp, but some of the African diaspora believe more can be done and that the statues should be removed completely. Others say the museum just should not exist anymore given its historical displays representing African people as primitive.
The museum says it cannot change the past but is committed to doing its part towards building a better future.
Gryseels said, “We realized that most children had their first encounter with Africa through a visit to this museum, either when they came with the school or with their parent.”
“For 100 years that impression was basically one of stereotypes that Africa was good for providing nature and we were good for providing culture. From stereotypes you get pre-judgements and from pre-judgements you get a certain amount of racism.”
When Gryseels joined the museum in 2001, a survey showed 95% of Belgians thought colonization was a good thing. In 2022 the survey was done again and the number dropped to 35%.
Statues showcased in the museum show Belgian soldiers and people in gold while their Congolese counter parts are black an image that paints a less-than-desirable image in the minds of visitors, who are often times children.