Monday, March 2, 2020


The renovated Africa museum in Tervuren is spectacular. The impressive building by the French architect Charles Girault is also a reflection of King Leopold II's hubris. 

The museum tries very hard to "revisit" myth and history. In trying to be too many things at the same time, this leaves the visitor frustrated. The intentions are probably good but the result is a patchwork of contradictory strands. The introduction to the rich collection of  individual art pieces could have been stunning. Unfortunately, another approach was chosen. The art becomes part of a narrative, depriving it from  a life on its own.

The history of Belgian colonialism is not a rosy one. It is unique because of King Leopold II, who was the sovereign of the Congo Free State which was his "property". He never went to Congo himself. He didn't show any interest in the well-being of his far away subjects. He managed from Brussels a most formidable technological and adventurousness epic through proxies. Belgium benefited and ranked in the lead of the 10 most industrial powers worldwide. Tragically, this achievement was rooted in brutal exploitation and cover-up. Only in 1909, when Belgium took over from the king, did small improvements begin to occur.

The museum tries to come to terms with this flawed history but yet again the approach looks almost paternalistic. The story line feels "cartoon like", ending up marginalizing the art.

The museum self looks great but the added infrastructure feels disproportionate. One might hope that the impressive art pieces could retrieve their individuality in the future. The Rockefeller collection in the Metropolitan Museum is a perfect example of how it could be done. 

It will be interesting to see the future collaboration between the Africa Museum and Kinshasa. Every visitor must feel unease when confronted by the colonial saga. This embarrassment  is proof that "reparation" is an issue which can no longer be ignored...neither can the present,

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