Myths and taboos regarding the museum
Where does the museum stand in relation to colonisation?
The principle of colonisation as a system of governance is fundamentally immoral and we completely distance ourselves from it.
How has the museum come to terms with its past as a colonial museum?
For more than 60 years, the AfricaMuseum spread a colonial message. We are transparent and honest in this respect.
The museum’s current role is about informing and raising awareness. We present the facts and memories of the past in order to have the most complete image possible. We also want to provide a forum for debate.
We approach the past in a mature way, by turning towards society and the future.
What is the museum’s position as regards the return of African cultural heritage?
The presence of African collections in Tervuren inevitably leads to the issue of returning these objects to their country of origin.
We are open-minded, participate in ongoing discussions within an international context and get involved in discussions relating to the future of African cultural heritage, which are currently being held in Europe.
The Belgian State, legal owner of the AfricaMuseum collections, has returned objects, in particular between 1976 and 1982. During this period, 114 ethnographic pieces left the Royal Museum for Central Africa for the National Museums Institute of Zaïre in Kinshasa. Approximately 600 objects were also transferred to the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare.
We are digitising our collections and archives as much as possible so that they are accessible online. We are also continuing with our efforts to protect the cultural heritage which can still be found in DR Congo, through training, travelling exhibitions and national capacity building. In 2010, the museum returned the colonial films on Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in digital form to these countries, for example.
What is the museum’s mission today?
The mission of the RMCA
The Royal Museum for Central Africa must aspire to be a world centre of research and knowledge dissemination on past and present societies and natural environments of Africa, and in particular Central Africa, to foster – among the public at large and the scientific community – understanding of and interest in this area and, through partnerships, to contribute substantially to its sustainable development. Thus the core endeavours of this Africa-oriented institution consist of acquiring and managing collections, conducting scientific research, implementing the results of this research, disseminating knowledge, and mounting selected exhibitions of its collections.
The museum’s mission
The AfricaMuseum is a centre for knowledge and resources on Africa, in particular Central Africa, in an historical, contemporary, and global context. The museum exhibits unique collections. It is a place of memory on the colonial past and strives to be a dynamic platform for exchanges and dialogues between cultures and generations.
Why has the museum got so many objects?
The museum has a long history of collecting objects and specimens. From the moment of its creation in 1898, it encouraged soldiers, civil servants, missionaries, traders and scientists in the Congo to gather objects, animals, etc.
How was the museum building funded?
The museum building was constructed with the personal fortune of Leopold II. This fortune was mainly constituted as a result of the capitalist management of the Congo Free State, which was marked by violence and abusive exploitation. The fitting out of the museum was funded by the Ministry of Colonies.
The renovation of the museum (2013-2018) has been funded by the Belgian State and private sponsors.
Why is “royal” part of the official name of the Royal Museum for Central Africa?
The Monarchy gives the “royal” label to Belgian associations that have been around for more than 50 years, according to a certain number of criteria, such as good management, the not for profit nature of the association, its vitality, etc.
The AfricaMuseum is autonomous from the Monarchy. Like all federal scientific establishments, it is under the supervision of the Secretary of State for Scientific Policy.
Are there any stuffed Africans in the museum?
The museum has never had stuffed humans in its collections.
It does however have two mummies, which arrived in the museum via the Ministry of Colonies. These mummies are of two men whose bodies were naturally mummified. In all likelihood, they came to the museum in the 1930s. In the 2000s, they were, for the first time ever, subjected to in-depth examinations, such as a pollen analysis, radiocarbon dating, a physical anthropological analysis, x-rays and DNA tests. None of this analysis made it possible to establish a dating with any degree of precision, but it would appear that they were shepherds from the region of Kivu who died in a cave between the 17th and 19th century.
The museum also conserves human remains in its ethnographic collections. There are many ‘sanza’ type musical instruments, the sound box of which is made from the top of a skull and an ivory horn to which a fragment of jaw is attached.
The museum has also conserved several skulls including that of the Lusinga chief, killed by Emile Storms’ men during a battle in 1884, which also cost the lives of around fifty villagers. Storms had Lusinga decapitated and brought his skull back to Belgium. During his expedition, he had other chiefs decapitated. Storms kept these skulls in his home until his death in 1918. In the 1930s, his widow donated them to the museum, along with dozens of objects, correspondence, etc. In 1964, the skulls and other human remains conserved in Tervuren were transferred to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, where they can still be found today.
For more information on these subjects:
- Lacaille A, Gomez IG. Les états du corps: conservation préventive des restes humains au sein des collections ethnographiques du Musée Royal de l’Afrique centrale. La Vie des Musées. 2011; 23 (Les restes humains): 29–42.
- Roberts AF. A Dance of Assassins. Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press; 2013.
- Couttenier M. Congo tentoongesteld. Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882-1925). Leuven: Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika/ Acco; 2005.
- Couttenier M. Fysieke antropologie in België en Congo 1883-1964. In: Sliggers B, Allegaert P, editors. De exotische mens Andere culturen als amusement. Tielt: Lannoo; 2009. p. 96–113.
- Couttenier M. “Et on ne peut s’empêcher de rire”: la physio-anthropologie en Belgique et au Congo (1882-1914). In: Bancel N, David T, Thomas D, editors. L’invention de la race Des représentations scientifiques aux exhibitions populaires. Paris: La Découverte; 2014. p. 117–32. (Recherches).
- Couttenier M. “We can’t help laughing”. Physical anthropology in Belgium and Congo (1882-1914). In: Bancel N, David T, Thomas D, editors. The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations of Race. London: Routledge; 2014. p. 100–16. (Routledge Studies in Cultural History).
- Volper, J. 2012. “À propos de sculptures & de crânes: les collectes d’Émile Storms”. Tribal Art XVII-1, N°66: 86-95.
What is the museum's position as regards the reign of Leopold II in the Congo?
Under the reign of Leopold II, the Congo Free State was a capitalist regime with a considerable human cost. Whatever the material achievements in the Congo, we cannot underestimate the violence and exploitation. Historical scientific research is sufficiently clear on this subject, and it's on this basis that we have adopted our position. We morally distance ourselves from Leopold II's policies as governor of the Congo Free State.
Even though Leopold II certainly left his mark on the museum and in doing so made his role in the shared colonial past more than visible, the renovated museum will be a dynamic platform for encounters and dialogue with people from different generations and cultures.
What is the “Charte de l’impérialisme” ?
For some time now, a "Charter of Imperialism", also known as "Charter of Servitude", has been doing the rounds on certain social networks. Some authors and Internet users claim that the AfricaMuseum is in possession of a "confidential" document, seemingly drawn up in Washington during the slave trade and then discretely negotiated at the Berlin Conference in 1885, then renegotiated after the First and Second World Wars by "Western" powers. They also propound that this charter proves that such powers deliberately "programmed the exploitation of poor countries and the massacre of their people" and that their leaders will, as such, "never be brought to justice for the crimes they commit around the world."
In many cases, historical critique is highly worthwhile for establishing the authenticity, validity and relevance of a document, whatever its contents. On examination of this particular case, it becomes apparent that the document poses a number of problems. Why?
First and foremost it is anonymous (neither its author(s) nor its source are known) and it is not an original (only transcriptions of the "charter" have been published). In theory, a charter, which is an official document, must also bear one or more signatures: these are not mentioned. What is more, since the document was allegedly "renegotiated" on several occasions during major historical events and in different locations, there should still be variants of the original document held in the archives of the countries or institutions concerned. This is not the case, and no professional historian has ever mentioned this document. It is also surprising that a document that was supposedly written during the slave trade should only come to light in the 21st century.
The content of said "charter" is also problematic. Its reading reveals many incongruities, anachronisms and turns of phrase that are not used in formal or diplomatic parlance. Examples include the term "Third World", which is cited many times in the text yet only coined in 1952 by the French demographer and economist Albert Sauvy; the concept of "genocide" which was used for the first time by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943; and the terms "economic development aid", "weapons of mass destruction" and "leaders" which were not in use prior to the second half of the 20th century. In addition, the generalist, if not simplistic, vision adopted in this document seems to be clumsily fuelled by radical and vindictive hostility towards the "West". Its objectives remain unclear.
This document, crudely used by some to spread confusion among people who are poorly or insufficiently informed is, therefore, "fake news" that is nothing more than conspiracy literature inspired by other false documents such as the "Protocol of the Elders of Zion", a famous anti-Semitic, Tsarist hoax from the early 20th century. A few years ago, another false document entitled "Discours du Roi Léopold II à l’arrivée des premiers missionnaires au Congo et en 1883" which was circulating on the Internet was proven to be fraudulent.
It is, therefore, pure fantasy to believe that the AfricaMuseum is in possession of such a document. There is no inventory mentioning such a document. The historical archives held at the Museum can be accessed online or upon simple request.