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Europe and the Postcolonial: Visiting the ‘Africa Museum’ at Tervuren

In March 2019, I visited the ‘Africa Museum’ at Tervuren just outside of Brussels. About half an hour’s travel time from the centre of the city, the route took me, on a tram, though what is evidently a relatively wealthy area, of little houses set in their own well-kept little gardens. I was dropped across the road from a nondescript entrance. It appeared to be under construction, someone unseen drilling somewhere, and on either side of the entry point from the road were two big bollards of scaffolding wrapped in tarpaulin. They announced the museum, with ‘Africa’ written in what was presumably deemed an ‘ethnic’ font, and advertised the museum restaurant, with an appropriately ‘African’ flavour-type name: Bistro Tembo.

I entered the estate, a sprawling many-acred piece of land that once belonged to Leopold II, the king of Belgium whose major passion was colonisation. At first, it was unassuming: the building directly ahead was not the museum; unobtrusive A4 signs indicated visitors were to turn left. The first building was misdirection; it almost seemed they didn’t necessarily want one to find the museum.

Take the left turn, and it is quite beautiful, paths threading off into tree-lined avenues flanked by the odd old statue. As the main route slopes downward, a modern square on stilts to the left becomes visible, and then all at once: a vista fit for description by Jane Austen. Manicured grass rolls down to a lake, overlooked grandly by a castle.

These grounds were the site of the International Exposition of 1897, hosted by Belgium and Leopold II, with which the king hoped to produce good publicity for and promote commercial interest in colonisation. From 1885 to 1908, Leopold II was sovereign ruler of what was then called the Congo Free State. For the exhibition, Leopold had Congolese people brought to Belgium, and a replica of a Congolese village built, so that guests to the fair could observe these human beings in their ‘natural habitat’. Seven of them died on the grounds as a result.

The entrance was not through the grand building, but via the stubby modern block on the left. A ticket cost the not negligible sum of 12 euros and I was more than a little uncomfortable giving money to this institution. I entered the museum through an underground tunnel, which lead to the grander construction. As I took the steep stairs downward, I had the sense of descending into an underworld, and I wondered briefly if this had been a deliberate choice. At the end of the tunnel and up the stairs, I entered into the museum proper. The first section was a meta-commentary of sorts on the museum itself. Off to the side, in an alcove of a room, they had placed items from the collection which “no longer belong” in the main body of it. It seemed to be where they had opted to put the things that made them uncomfortable, but with which they were not willing to part. On display here were, for the most part, sculptures of African people. I have no doubt that they were even more offensive and upsetting in their prior settings, but the new location was utterly uncanny. They huddled here, frozen in bizarre constellations, hidden like shame but still on display.

Throughout, the museum was keen to establish itself as being and always having been a knowledge producer, as having contributed valuable insight to science in a variety of disciplines. This is evident in claims of being a “scientific institution, committed to research and the spread of knowledge”, as Director Bruno Verbergt put it in the visitor’s guide. The language surrounding the means by which it has done its ‘science and research’ remains weirdly neutral.

The main body of the museum begins beyond this first antechamber exhibition. Here everything is grand in scale: the ceilings are high, ornate stucco, vast expanses of marble and so on. They have rooms of rocks taken from Africa; rooms of animals taken from Africa and stuffed; uncountable articles of art and everyday items taken from Africa; racist representations of Africans. The focus of the collection is Belgium’s former colonies, areas in today’s DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, but occasionally extending to other areas of sub-Saharan Africa. There is the oldest piece of art on the planet, according to its label: a piece of wood possibly carved to look like an aardvark. What is any of it doing here?

The museum underwent a major renovation from 2013 to 2018, completed just a few months before my visit. The aim of this renovation, as per the museum’s own website, was to “present a contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa.” If this is the decolonised version, I shudder to think what it looked like before. As valuable as is the addition of Congolese voices and work (not stolen), such as Thérèse Izay Kirongozi’s Traffic Robot, the changes seem woefully inadequate. You can read a more detailed account of the post-renovation exhibits here.

Matthias De Groof, in collaboration with Mona Mpembele, produced a documentary on the renovation process, Palimpsest of the Africa Museum. The film documents discussions held between museum staff and a committee of six experts selected to represent several African associations in Belgium. In it, Dr. Bambi Ceuppens describes how the exhibition of 1897 included displays of ‘exotic dance’ and physical examination for the purposes of biological racism, as well as a sign instructing visitors not to feed the exhibited humans.

Amongst the discussion of les 6, as they are referred to, a debate emerges about the essential nature of what the museum is: a museum of natural sciences, of history, of ethnography, anthropology, and so on. How one understands what it is seems to determine what it should do going forward. But what it is, fundamentally and essentially, is a colonial institution: born of a will to glorify colonial violence, it attempts to legitimate its ongoing existence by recourse to claims of ‘knowledge production’ that continue to be embedded in coloniality. Like many other European institutions, it is a horde of ill-gotten gains. Can this be redeemed? I was relieved to depart from Tervuren.

The museum is in a suburb of Brussels, a city riddled with things named after Leopold II. It is also the capital city of the EU, which is often used as shorthand to represent Europe as a normative ideal. Protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in May and June 2020 in the United States have given new energy to the fight against the ongoing memorialisation of the coloniser-king, as demands for the removal of statues of Leopold II have escalated. These are heartening and hard-earned consequences of the work of many activists who have been at this task for a long time – such as MRAX and the Réparons l’Histoire group, who launched a petition signed by tens of thousands of people to remove statues of the colonist from public spaces. The momentum is catching, as is indicated by the upsurge in awareness for the colonial markers of racism that still litter many European streets. Examples across the European continent are finally in the public eye, from Bristol, where Black Lives Matter protestors toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, to the marking of  Winston Churchill in Prague, and António Vieira in Lisbon. In Germany, calls for the removal of memorials to Germany’s colonialists have brought work that has long been pursued by organisations like Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, Berlin Postkolonial and Postcolonial Potsdam into mainstream visibility.

The swelling of anti-racist movements, and the awareness of Europe’s ongoing colonial entanglements they have spurred, may be hope-inspiring. At the same time, the enormous array of examples of colonial commemorations so readily available also reminds how much work we in Europe still have to do – when the ‘Africa Museum’ in its present incarnation can call itself ‘decolonised’, and pulling down statues of Leopold II is still up for debate.