Lonely Planet Writer

Belgium's confusing Africa Museum

Museums can be surprisingly controversial places.

Take the ongoing pan-national stinks over ownership of antiquities, like the British Museum and Louvre’s possession of the friezes which once adorned the Parthenon in Athens. Then there’s Petersburg, Kentucky’s Creation Museum which is a talking point for all kinds of reasons – not least the presence of dinosaurs in the main galleries. Not many though can match the Belgian capital, Brussels’ Africa Museum for hitting the headlines in recent years.

Not that you’d necessarily know any of this when approaching the museum, which makes for a interesting, challenging half-day outing from Brussels. Africa Museum, or the Royal Museum for Central Africa as it is also known, is located in Tervuren, just outside the Belgian capital’s city limits.

Getting here is one of Brussels’ best journeys. First take metro line 1B in the direction of Stockel, and then tram 44 which runs almost to the gates of the museum. The ride is a fine one, passing through lovely parkland, handsome houses and dense forest until arriving in Tervuren. The dingy area around Midi/Zuid station this is not. The walk to the entrance to the museum, constructed for the 1897 World Exhibition, takes you through palatial scenery and beautifully sculptured gardens. If you come on a sunny day bring a picnic. Africa Museum offers much to chew over.

44 tram at Tervuren

Once inside there are huge collections of ethnographic objects including an enormous dug-out canoe and galleries of stuffed animals which, as the museum itself admits, ‘still reflects the way Europe regarded Africa in the nineteen-sixties, despite a radically altered social context not only in Africa but here as well.’ There are statues dating back to the construction of the museum symbolising Belgium’s protecting and civilising role in what was the Belgian Congo. In some ways though it’s what is not here that’s striking.

Belgium protects Congo

Congo Free State was not like other colonial territories. Though it was established, like others, to exploit the natural wealth of the territory for enrichment and self-aggrandisement, this was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, who over three decades supervised ‘private colonialism’ which amounted to the looting and pillage of a huge swathe of Africa. Millions died and countless others were subject to amputation, torture and slavery while accumulating vast amounts rubber, ivory and mineral-based wealth. Adam Hoschchild’s excellent King Leopold’s Ghost draws back the curtain over this little-known period of history and the work done by campaigners like E D Morel against slavery and exploitation in the Congo.

Modern elephant sculpture outside museum

All this is at the root of the controversy about the museum. The exploitation, mutilation and death of millions of Africans feels a long way from this quiet corner of Brussels, yet what’s here was amassed under horrific conditions which brought misery and disaster onto the heads of those living under Leopold’s rule in Africa. The atrocities carried out in the Belgian Congo are not disputed, but you have to look hard for a mention of them and they are not widely flagged up in the museum. The portrayal of Henry Morton Stanley also fails to tell the full story of his relationship with Leopold and understanding of his mission in the Congo. To be fair to the institution, it’s website points out that renovation is a priority, and it will be interesting to see how the challenge of representing a more modern view of the Belgian Congo. More perspectives from those on the receiving end of such brutal treatment would be a start, as would a memorial far more prominent than the elaborate plaque to Belgians who died in the Congo.

All this from a trip to a museum which, while no secret is not on the must-see list in Brussels. But this, like dozens of other examples worldwide, provide proof of the power of museums to inform, challenge and divide opinions. If you come here with even a little understanding of what happened during Leopold’s reign of terror in the Congo then you might, like me, come out into the Spring sunshine scratching your head and wondering what to make of it all, as groups of schoolchildren enjoy a day out here and locals walk their dogs and take the cool Spring air.