The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, reopened on Saturday, December 8, after a renovation project which took five years.
It was originally built in 1908 by King Leopold II, the Belgian monarch who ruled the Congo as his personal fiefdom for decades, brutalising the people and enriching himself on the back of huge global demand for rubber.
Guido Gryseels, Director General of the renamed Africa Museum, said 66 million euros ($75 million) had been spent on new buildings and nine million euros ($10 million) on a new exhibition.
Trying to Change Perceptions of Africans
But he said the most important aspect of the revamp was to recalibrate the museum and change Belgians' perceptions of Africa and Africans.
— Carolyn Reynolds (@calsuereynolds) 8 December 2018
"Entire generations of Belgians came here and were told colonialism was a good thing, that we brought civilisation and welfare and culture to the Congo," Mr. Gryseels told Sputnik.
One statue — the so-called Leopard Man — sums up European attitudes towards the African in the 19th century and well into the 20th century.
"It was made by a Belgian based on a story in the Congo that if people did not listen to the chief the Leopard Man would kill them. It was spread by the colonialists as a symbol of savagery but to the Congolese it became a symbol of colonial oppression," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
He said when he took over as director general in 2001 he began tackling those false perceptions and the following year he got the initial approval for the rebuild and reform of the museum, although the work did not start until 2013.
One of the thorniest issues for the museum to deal with is what to do with 125,000 artefacts — only 1,000 of which are on show at any one time — which were taken from the Congo and neighbouring Rwanda by the Belgians.
Following his visit to the former French colony of Burkina Faso in November 2017, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to "ensure all conditions for temporary or permanent return of cultural heritage objects to Africa" within five years and the first 26 artefacts were sent back to Benin last month.
"Since the publication of the Macron Report the issue is on the table and everyone is asking me about it. There is pressure," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
— Andreas Görgen (@AA_Kultur) 8 December 2018
"Eighty percent of Africa's artistic heritage is in Europe and you have to be open about this. I will agree to return some artefacts, especially if they were taken illegally or under military occupation. But the Congo doesn't have any capacity, it doesn't even have a national museum, although they are building one," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
He said there may be a time in the future where many of the artefacts could be sent back to the Democratic Republic of Congo but at the moment that is simply not practical.
Mr. Gryseels said the European powers divided up Africa at the Congress of Berlin in 1885 and the Congo was given to Leopold II, King of the Belgians, largely because Britain, France and Germany did not think it was economically or strategically important.
Ruled As King's Private Fiefdom
"He ruled it as if it was his private property and it was called the Congo Free State," said Mr. Gryseels, without a hint of irony.
— Emmanuel Cambas (@EmmanuelVyronas) 10 December 2018
"In 1885 Henry Ford invented cars and tyres so there was an enormous demand for rubber for tyres and it was only produced naturally in two countries — Brazil and the Congo. The price of rubber rose astronomically and King Leopold saw it as an opportunity to get a return on his investment," Mr. Gryseels told Sputnik.
"King Leopold wanted as much rubber as possible and lots of human rights violations were committed. Villages were burned down, people were mutilated and whole communities held hostage if they did not produce enough rubber. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions died," Mr. Gryseels told Sputnik.
British and American missionaries "rang the alarm bell" and soon reports of atrocities in the Congo began appearing in papers in Europe and North America.
"The British, French and Germans all held equally racist and exploitative attitudes but King Leopold was pretty brutal even for those times," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
William Conrad's Novel Inspired By Horrors of Congo
The atrocities also inspired William Conrad's famous novel, Heart of Darkness and in 1904 a British diplomat, Sir Roger Casement, wrote a report highlighting what was going on in King Leopold's private colony.
"The Anglo-Saxon world put pressure on Belgium and in 1908 they took it off the king and it became Belgian Congo," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
King Leopold II died in 1909, an extremely wealthy man, and was never charged with any crimes.
He gave much of his wealth to his French mistress, Caroline Lacroix, a former prostitute who was almost 50 years his junior and was universally loathed in Belgium.
King Caused Untold Misery In Colony He Never Even Visited
King Leopold had never actually visited the Congo and historians are divided about whether he knew what was being carried out under his orders.
"He never went there himself and although he was responsible, it's not entirely clear to what extent he can be found to be personally responsible for what went on," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
He said one in three Europeans who went to the Congo died from yellow fever and the overseers who worked for King Leopold on the rubber plantations were "badly paid" and "rough characters" who stood to gain from increased production which they felt they could only achieve through "harsh methods."
— Anna van Densky (@AnnaVanDensky) 8 December 2018
Eventually in 1960 Belgium granted independence to Congo but the new leader, Patrice Lumumba, was a nationalist who was close to the Soviet Union and fell victim to Cold War tensions.
"Belgium was resistant to losing power. Lumumba sought help from the Russians and it was the time of the Iron Curtain, so the US put pressure on Belgium to get rid of Lumumba," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
Amazingly Belgium issued an apology for its role in ignoring the 1994 genocide in Rwanda but has never formally apologised for its actions in the Congo.
— Nation State of Mind (@OmowaleAfrika) 10 December 2018
Has Belgium Confronted Its Past in the Museum?
Mr. Gryssels said the museum had a section devoted to the darkest secrets of Belgium's colonial past but he said they wanted to attract families and make it more about contemporary Africa.
He said there are exhibitions about the biodiversity of the African continent, about contemporary art, music, rituals and resources, all illustrated by more than 180 hours of video footage.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) 11 December 2018
"Africa and the African is at the centre of the entire exhibition and there are witness accounts from Africans," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.
He said around 250,000 people of African origin now live in Belgium and he said nearly a third of the visitors on the first weekend it was open were black Belgians.
The building itself is carved with various eulogies to King Leopold II and slogans about bringing culture and civilisation to Africa but Mr. Gryssels said it could not be altered because it is an architecturally listed building.
He played down similarities with places built by the Nazis and festooned with swastikas.
"It's not the same thing at all," Mr. Gryssels told Sputnik.