"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


tervuren at last

Mercy. I always manage to forget how boring archival work is. Not that you don't learn some interesting things while digging through page after page after page after page after page of carbon-copied notes on the Belgian colonial regime in Congo. Because goodness knows the Belgians kept records. Who wouldn't want to know that:
  • There were 517 polygamists living in Goma territory at the end of 1952?
  • Four "natives" were imprisioned for between one and thirty days for insubordination to customary authorities there in 1954?
  • There were 38,323 cases of intestinal schistosomiasis (not to be confused with the other types of schistosomiasis, for which there are equally detailed records) among the Congolese in 1955, 84 of which resulted in death? (None of the 96 Europeans infected that year (67 of them in Kivu) died. All statistics were, of course, kept in line with the color bar that pervaded every aspect of life in the Belgian Congo.)
It's a good thing the Belgians were there to preserve it all for posterity. Year after year after year. (Or at least until 1959. They won't let you look at anything less than 50 years old without considerable hassle.)

I hope the readers of my hypothetical book appreciate this ephemera, even though none of it is actually what I need for the project. Luckily, buried in the thousands of pages of pathology reports, the information I need is readily available. It just takes awhile to find it.

By noon yesterday, my eyes had glazed over and I needed a break. So I went to a place I've been wanting to visit for ten years: the Royal Museum of Central Africa at Tervuren. Established by King Leopold II just as he lost control of what had been his private colony, the Royal Museum of Central Africa is legendary among Africanists for being an example of mind-boggling racist ideology that failed to catch up with the times. (Most of the descriptions of the place I've heard are semi-unprintable, ranging from outright profanity to a jaw-dropped, "It's something.") Until very recently, most Belgians were unaware of the horrible things Leopold II did to the Congolese, nor have they been made aware of how much their paternalistic system of colonization messed up the Congo by failing to prepare the country for independence.
If I were going to build a monument to racist ideology, it would look exactly like Versailles.

The museum did not disappoint. After passing several statues of anatomically correct elephants (see above), you enter the beautiful palace in which the museum is housed through a beautiful rotunda in which there are statues depicting the rescue of black children by (white) mother civilization. Aside from the huge wing dedicated to animal specimins (ever seen the skin of an okapi?), the historical and anthropological displays range in nature from curiosities to outright horrors. The most offensive part is the historical section, where the exploits of explorers and the adventures of "natives" in loincloths are demonstrated with an alarming lack of self-awareness on the part of those who originally put together the displays.

Thankfully, the museum has a new, enlightened director who is determined to bring the museum into the 21st century. He has clearly done his best to correct all the misconceptions presented by the museum's founders. This means that there are signs in front of the most offensive displays indicating that most of the images and films in the museum are from an era when attitudes about colonialism were very different. In some cases, the most racist cases are actually partially covered by other displays:

Poor Mr. Thys.

There's also a fantastic newer exhibit on what really happened in the Congo, including depictions of the brutality to which the Congolese were subjected in the late 1800's. It beautifully demonstrates how the colony shifted into independence, showing that World War II in particular was a galvanizing force in helping the Congolese realize that the Belgians weren't doing much to "help" them with their civilizing mission:
This is all next to a room in which there's a memorial to all the Belgians who died in the Congo. No mention is made in the original display of the 3 million Congolese who perished under Leopold's rule, nor of the 5 million who have died as a result of the current conflict.
Leopold II's likenesses are mostly shoved into unremarkable corners. He would be easy to miss except for the fact that he's about seven feet tall:
All in all, I found the Africa Museum to be really interesting, if more than a bit dated in attitude and display. The director and his staff clearly have a challenge before them; rebuilding an entire museum while forcing a nation to face its nasty history is a nearly impossible task. They're doing their best, however, and with a little more money, the museum could play an important role in helping Belgium understand what colonialism really did to central Africa.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

King Leopold's Ghost, the Adam Hochschild book on Belgium's horrors in Congo, has a fantastic final chapter on the museum and Belgium's failure to face the reality of its own past. It's great to read the museum is finally changing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 6:42:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Yeah, that's definitely where I first read about it. The newer exhibit is really good, although it basically stops at independence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 3:01:00 PM

Blogger The Linz said...

Wow, that's intense. Despite the efforts being made to update the museum, it sounds like I'd probably walk out of there with a massive anxiety headache.

And yet I'd still like to see it. Of course.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 6:49:00 PM


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