The Non-Sorrow of the Belgians: Africa Museum, Tervuren


After visiting the revamped Africa museum in Tervuren, Brussels, which commemorates our colonial heritage in a supposedly introspective and decolonizing fashion, I was asked by one of the “friendly museum guides” on the scenic ride of tram 44 what I really thought about it, I told him that I did not like it all. He told me to report my criticism on the museum website, but here I slam it on my own blog.

Without having the time to go into details, I think that this internationally applauded “decolonizing” museum  is now at once one of Belgium’s lamest and most offensive museums. It does not bother me too much that the exhibits are hodgepodge and very cheaply designed, the stolen objects and taxidermic animals from our brutal heritage creating a cozy fleamarket atmosphere that our Belgium is known for. What bothers me is the lack of care and communication about our forms of brutal exploitation in the colony, the vagueness of descriptions on most of the labels and mission statements, so that it is really not clear what kind of slavery economy and cultural soft power Leopold II had put into place. I noticed a crude denial and many attempts to “remain neutral” amongst a nearly-formal and proud display of mines and minerals, exotically exuberant fauna and flora, offensively colonial statues of serving and nakedly clad primitives, a long engraved list of Belgians who died in the colony without a much longer Congolese counter-list. A few of those ugly-racist sculptures have been “taken away” from the museum and assembled in one separate room for our critical gaze, but many other of those sculptures , as stated on the signs, “could not be removed” from museum halls. Indeed the main slogan of the museum “Everything Passes, Except the Past” here means that the museum itself is stuck in its colonial “human zoo” mentality. It was built by Leopold II and opened in 1910 as a way to showcase his wealth and dark-enlightenment worldview on how to rule Africans, who were also literally put on display in Belgium in 1897. As in other sites of historical commemoration and apology, it should mean that we sense the pain and humiliation as atmosphere of destruction, and ongoing post-colonial strife on how to negotiate cultural relations, but perhaps not the kind of  cowardice and  silliness that is now the main tenet of this revamped museum.

Or perhaps the silliness of the Belgians, in itself a crude stereotype that unites the Flemish and Walloons, comes in handy for this museum, and it was well covered by Trevor Noah in the Daily Show:

And of course my full applause goes to the VRT series “Kinderen Van de Kolonie” (in French and Dutch) which is also airing this Fall and does apologize to the Congolese. This TV documentary series evokes the full horror of colonial violence  by opening up harsh views and Congolese responses, and its complexity is full of feeling.