Man sculpture at Museum of Central Africa
Brussels - Arab Today
The world's "last" colonial gallery, Brussels' dusty Royal Museum of Central Africa, closes this month to re-emerge with a new vision of the continent more than a half-century after the independence of the former Belgium Congo.
Set to reopen in 2017, the venerable institution has often offended African sensibilities for what is seen as a moth-balled presentation of Africa as it was a century ago.
One Belgium-educated black scholar recalled his distress as a father chased his screaming young daughter around the collection's 1913 "leopardman" statue, crying "Aaah, here come the cannibals!"
The piece, one of the museum's most controversial, represents the sort of fearsome killer cloaked in a leopard skin whose murderous deeds fuelled Europe's fears of darkest Africa.
It inspired films as well as the politically-suspect adventures of Belgium's own comic book hero in "Tintin in the Congo".
"I decisively told the little girl to stop," wrote Congolese-born Florida professor Jean Muteba Rahier, saying the incident highlighted how the museum peddled "an imperial and racist worldview" of Africans as inferior, bestial and savage beings.
"Africans do not come to visit," Yoto Djongakodi, who heads a committee of African diaspora groups involved in the planned refurbishment, told AFP. "The museum's image must change."
The gallery dates back to 1897, when King Leopold II decided to hold a Congo exhibition to raise funds and find investors for his Congo Free State, a personal property 80 times the size of Belgium and notoriously run like a giant labour camp.
The cruelty of life under the brutal colonial rulers was evoked in Joseph Conrad's 1899 "Heart of Darkness", and denounced more recently in a bestseller by American writer Adam Hochschild, "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa."
The king's show featured Congo flora and fauna as well as 300 men, women and children shipped to Europe to portray life in an African village built beside a lake at his Tervuren forest estate outside Brussels.
'World's last great colonial museum'
The Africans cooked, played and rowed around the lake in a wooden pirogue. A few died in Tervuren, others on the way home.
A Palace of the Colonies was also built to house what has become the world's biggest anthropological and scientific collection from central Africa.
These include the archives of Leopold's ally, Henry Morton Stanley, best remembered for his legendary "Dr Livingstone I presume?"
The show was a whopping success, drawing 1.3 million visitors in six months. A few years later, in 1908, Belgium finally agreed to take over the colony in the name of the state and in 1910 the massive neo-classical palace currently housing the museum officially opened.
"People often say our museum is the world's last great colonial museum because it carries so many lasting traces of the colonial past," director Guido Gryseels told AFP.
"The permanent exhibition hasn't changed since the 1950s."
With 10 million zoological specimens, 150,000 ethnological items and three kilometres (nearly two miles) of archives, "we have the world's largest central African collection", he said.
As in a time warp, both the glass display cases and the spears, maps, paddles and bowls inside date from the 19th century.
With Stanley's cap, Leopold's ivory bust and a host of stuffed wild animals, the museum evokes an African exotica of costumes and beating drums.
"The museum just doesn't reflect contemporary Africa," said Djongakodi, the Congolese head of the COMRAF group which is working with Gryseels on the revamp.
Shocking to many are early 19th-century sculptures in the entrance of giant-sized European missionaries looking down paternally on pint-sized Africans in loin-cloths.
"Belgium brings civilisation to Congo," says a plaque.
'It's a headache'
An engraved tribute to those who died in the Congo lists 1,508 Belgians but not a single Congolese.
"Not even those who died fighting for Belgium during the two world wars, though there were more Congolese than Belgian deaths," said Djongakodi.
The museum will close its doors on November 30 for the 75 million-euro ($102 million) refurbishment, and challenges abound.
The glass cases and high-ceilinged halls, classified as national heritage, cannot be touched -- precluding the installation of much-needed air-conditioning -- so authorities plan to erect a new building with modern facilities that will connect to the old palace via an underground passageway.
But the test for director Gryseels is to reinvent the museum's image.
"It's a headache," he said. "Our museum must continue to evoke Belgium's colonial past while becoming a window on Africa today.... and place the accent on African men and women rather than on objects."
"Fifteen years ago it would've been difficult," he conceded.
"Belgium was the last colonial power to question its past. It's a very emotional issue due to the massive number of Belgians who served in the Congo as teachers, doctors, civil servants or soldiers."
Gryseels said his generation grew up proud of having provided roads and schools, though when Congo seized its independence in 1960 it had only 27 university graduates.
The museum itself helped prompt a re-think with exhibitions and talks in 2001 and 2005 that spurred a national debate on the past on a scale not seen in Britain, France, Spain or Portugal.
Until then "the museum symbolised a time when Belgium was rich, when it played a role on the world scene, when it was still the good old days."