Restitution policy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa

Approved by the Director’s Advisory Committee on 31 January 2020
  1. In the ongoing debate regarding the restitution of African cultural heritage, the RMCA takes an open and constructive position. It is an active participant in the dialogue with authorities and museum policy representatives, and with Belgians of African descent from the relevant countries. The RMCA acknowledges that it is not normal for such a large part of African cultural heritage to be found in the West, given that the countries of origin have moral ownership of such heritage. It also recognises that its collections were acquired in part during the colonial period in the context of a policy of legal inequality: people were forced or placed under pressure to abandon objects, and they were too weak to negotiate the price when they wished to sell objects. During the Congo Free State period, certain objects were obtained using methods that were then illegal in Belgium, such as looting, hostage-taking, or desecration. Dialogue with all the parties involved is crucial. To facilitate such dialogue, the RMCA is providing the inventory of its collections for consultation. It is making every effort to publish the inventory of all its ethnographic collections and archives online.
  2. From a legal standpoint, the collections of the RMCA are the inalienable property of the federal state and belong to federal heritage. Restitution can only be decided upon by the federal minister for Science Policy within a strict legal framework and would require approval by parliament. Long-term loans can be approved by the director-general of the RMCA.
  3. Given that the method and circumstances are unclear with regard to the acquisition of part of the collections, the RMCA shall prioritise research on the provenance of its collections. African scientists will also participate in this effort through, among others, a new Scientist-in-Residence programme as well as a Visiting Scientist programme.
  4. There is still significant cultural heritage present in Congo and Rwanda, and these countries wish to pursue a collaboration in reinforcing their capacities. The RMCA shall continue to invest in capacity-building for African museums in the areas of collection management and restoration, storage, digitisation of inventories and archives, and public-oriented activities. The RMCA has close partnerships with the Institut des musées nationaux du Congo (IMNC), the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy (formerly National Museums of Rwanda), and the Musée des civilisations noires (MCN) in Dakar, Senegal. With these museums, the RMCA has a vast five-year collaboration programme for collection management and restoration, educational and public-oriented activities, the digitisation of inventories and archives, and joint and travelling exhibitions.
  5. To allow faster and easier access to its collections, the RMCA will step up its efforts to digitise the archives, photos, and films in its possession so that these can be made available online, and digital copies thereof can be transferred to the relevant countries. A pilot project is ongoing with Rwanda. A travelling exhibition on speakers of Bantu languages is in preparation with the MCN and the CICIBA (Gabon).
  6. The RMCA will advise the relevant minister on the possibility of returning physical objects, provided there is a formal petition from a recognised authority and following a detailed investigation on the manner in which the requested objects were acquired. Objects of great symbolic value to the countries concerned, as well as those acquired through violence or plunder, will be considered a priority. To establish these priorities, the RMCA shall be open to contributions and questions from the diaspora, African academics, and local communities in the relevant countries. In the event of a formal and pertinent request for restitution, the director-general of the RMCA shall form a working group composed of internal and external scientific experts of the relevant collection, representatives of the RMCA scientific and public-oriented services, as well as relevant representatives from Africa and the African diaspora in Belgium. This working group shall then advise the federal minister for Science Policy on the specific question. 
  7. Recent evolutions of the Belgian legal framework regarding restitution
    (updated in October 2021)
    There is currently no legal framework for restitution in Belgium. In 2018, former Federal Secretary of State for Science Policy Zuhal Demir announced the creation of a working group for this purpose, which was tasked to draft a framework with clear criteria for the possible restitution of collections and human remains. Priority was to be given to collections of great symbolic value or acquired through looting or theft, and to the return of human remains. In addition, special attention was to be given to collections that would complement those present in the countries concerned and render them more representative. A few months after this announcement, the government fell and no concrete follow-up to this announcement was given.
    In July 2020, a parliamentary Special Commission was set up 'to investigate the Congo Free State (1885-1908) and the Belgian colonial past in Congo (1908-1960), Rwanda and Burundi (1919-1962), its impact and the consequences to be given to it'.
    At a press conference organised at the AfricaMuseum on 6 July 2021, State Secretary Thomas Dermine explained his approach to the restitution of cultural objects looted from Congo during the colonial period.
    In order to overcome the difficulty of operationalising the restitution and to deal with the symbolic issue without delay, I proposed to the Belgian Government to apply two principles:
    1. It is important to legally recognise the alienability for restitution purposes of property from the colonial past, i.e. property acquired during the period 1885-1960. The legal character of alienability symbolically acts that - in the absence of certainty as to the consequences of the possession of these objects by Belgium - they are likely to be alienated for restitution purposes. This is therefore a prerequisite for serenely opening up the provenance studies and increasing scientific knowledge about these objects.
    2. The proposed approach is intended first and foremost to initiate a dialogue with the authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to provide them with a framework to facilitate the return of legal ownership of all property for which a provenance study concludes that its possession by Belgium is illegitimate. This transfer of legal ownership must take place immediately, regardless of whether a claim for physical restitution has been made. With this transfer of legal ownership, the legitimate owner - the Congolese state - is recognised as having the right to request material restitution, based on strengthened scientific and cultural collaboration. I would like to build this framework jointly with my Congolese counterparts and allow it to be based on a joint scientific commission, which brings together scientists from our two countries.

    The State Secretary plans to operationalise this restitution policy from the beginning of 2022.

DISCLAIMER: The English version is a translation of the original in Dutch for information purposes only. In case of a discrepancy, the Dutch original shall prevail.