The viewpoints of the museum
Colonialism is a form of government based on military occupation, authoritarian and racist administration, and exploitation. The museum therefore explicitly distances itself from it. It takes responsibility for the impact that its previous propaganda for colonialism has had on the multicultural society of today, and for the message of Western moral and intellectual superiority it has conveyed in the past.
The museum intends to be a forum for opinions and views on the historical, current and future relationship with Central Africa. A number of historians have given an interesting state of affairs on colonial history through opinion articles in the Belgian media:
- Gillian Mathys et.al., 'Gebruik historici niet als excuus in de discussie over excuses aan Congo', De Morgen, 16/6/2020 (paywall)
- Amandine Lauro en Benoît Henriet, 'Geschiedschrijving vermag veel, maar kan niet alles: 10 misvattingen over de Belgische kolonisatie', Knack, 30/6/2019
- Guy Vanthemsche, ‘De feiten moeten kloppen, ook over Congo’, De Standaard, 22/2/2019 (paywall)
- Idesbald Goddeeris, ‘Congo heeft de kolonisatie zelf betaald’, De Standaard, 25/2/2019 (paywall)
- Gillian Mathys et.al., « N’instrumentalisez pas les historiens dans le débat sur le passé colonial », Le Soir, 16/6/2020
- Amandine Lauro et Benoît Henriet, « Dix idées reçues sur la colonisation belge », Le Soir, 8/3/2019
From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold II was the sovereign ruler of the Congo Free State. He used the region as a capitalist colony. In particular, the exploitation of rubber and ivory was accompanied by excessive violence. Conquest wars, exploitation, forced labour, punitive expeditions, the displacement of populations, the disruption of agriculture, epidemics, and the introduction of previously unknown diseases resulted in the wide-scale death of many Congolese. Moreover, the birth rate has fallen sharply. In the absence of precise data, it is very difficult to determine how many victims the Congo Free State has made, but the total population deficit runs into the hundreds of thousands and, according to recent estimates by Belgian and Congolese historians, it may even be several million. Some even talk of one third of the total population.
The RMCA is not always the moral or legitimate owner of the collections held in Tervuren. Part of the collections was acquired during the colonial period, in conditions that were violent, unfair, or with a power imbalance. This was especially the case during the Congo Free State years between 1885 and 1908.
The RMCA has for many years been an active and transparent participant in discussions regarding the restitution of African cultural heritage and in the dialogue with the relevant stakeholders.
That said, the federal state remains the legal proprietor of the RMCA collections, and no decision regarding ownership can be made by the museum itself. Only the Federal State Secretary for Science Policy can make such a decision, in accordance with a strict legal framework and with parliamentary approval.
In July 2022, the Federal Parliament adopted a bill "recognising the alienable character of goods linked to the colonial past of the Belgian State and determining a legal framework for their restitution and return". The law specifies that the restitution and return of property can only take place in execution of a treaty between the Belgian state and the state of origin. Discussions on a bilateral treaty are underway between the Congolese government and the Belgian state. Requests for the restitution of objects of Congolese origin would be submitted to a joint Congolese-Belgian commission, composed on a parity basis, which would examine the provenance of the objects concerned. This commission is composed of eight members, four of whom would be appointed by the DR Congo and four by Belgium.
The RMCA gives priority to provenance research. This consists of an in-depth study of the conditions under which the objects were acquired. A four-year research project, funded by the Federal Science Policy, aims to study the provenance of objects in the RMCA's ethnographic collections. The project started in September 2022 and four researchers have been recruited for the project. The project is conducted in co-creation with the Institut des Musées nationaux du Congo (IMNC). African scientists will be involved in this research.
The RMCA has also launched a ‘provenance trail’ through the museum's rooms in 2021. This smartphone guided tour highlights pieces of different origins. The RMCA developed the tour to share the results of its provenance research efforts. The museum also regularly publishes articles to provide more context and details on the provenance of the objects in the trail.
The RMCA preserves two mummified persons, who ended up in the museum collection in 1919 via the Ministry of the Colonies. They were examined for the first time in 2004. The researchers were able to determine that they were probably herdsmen from the Kivu region. In 2020, a find was made in the Africa archives of the State Archives with an exact description of the location they were found.
In 1964, the museum closed its department of physical anthropology. Most of the skulls and other human remains that were preserved there were transferred to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. They are still there today. Some human remains that were part of this department's collection, such as the two mummified humans, but also Prince Kapampa, are still at the RMCA. The skull of this prince was taken with that of Chief Lusinga Iwa N'Gombe by Captain Emile Storms (1848-1918).
The museum also preserves some ethnographic objects in which human remains were incorporated by their makers. These include, for example, musical instruments whose sound box consists of a skullcap, and a horn to which a piece of jawbone has been attached.
In collaboration with six other museums and universities, the RMCA launched the HOME project (Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation) to thoroughly evaluate the historical, scientific, and ethical background of human remains in Belgian collections. The aim is to inform policy and stakeholders about their possible final destinations.
A ‘Charte de l’impérialisme’, also called a ‘Charter of Slavery’ has been circulating on social networks for a long time. According to some authors and internet users, the AfricaMuseum is in possession of this ‘confidential’ document. It is, however, a hoax.
The charter was reportedly drafted in Washington in the era of slavery. The Western powers are said to have negotiated it discretely during the Berlin Conference, in 1885, and to have discussed it again after the First and Second World Wars. In the charter, the Western countries are said to have committed themselves ‘to the exploitation of poor countries and the slaughter of their inhabitants’. They are also said to have decided that ‘their leaders will never be prosecuted for any of the crimes that they commit all over the world’.
The document, however, raises many questions. It is anonymous: neither the authors, nor its precise origins are known. It is not original: only copies of it have been distributed. A charter is an official document that, in principle, is only valid if it is signed by one or more persons; that is not the case here. Moreover, the charter is said to have been negotiated several times and in different locations. Variants of the original text should therefore exist in the archives of the countries or institutions involved, but this is also not the case. No professional historian has ever referenced the document. It is, moreover, surprising that a document apparently written during the slave trade should only have surfaced in the 21st century...
The content of the document is problematic as well. It contains numerous improbabilities, anachronisms, and sentence constructions that are not common in diplomatic language. A few examples: the term ‘third world’, which recurs throughout the text, was only introduced in 1952 by the French demographer and economist Albert Sauvy; the concept ‘genocide’, which also occurs in the text, was only used for the first time in 1943, by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin; and also the terms ‘economic development assistance’, and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were not in use before the second half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the charter expresses a generalizing, even simplistic vision that appears to stem from a radical, vengeful hostility to ‘the West’. Its purpose remains unclear.
The document, which is grossly misused by some to spread unrest among ill-informed people, is false, or fake news. It belongs in the corner of conspiracy theories and is based on other fictitious documents, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery from the early 20th century. It is, moreover, not the only fake document about the early years of colonialism to be found on the internet. For example, a similar text, entitled Discours du Roi Léopold II à l'arrivée des premiers missionnaires au Congo en 1883, has been circulating for several years.
It is therefore entirely unbelievable to think that the AfricaMuseum would have such a document in its possession. No single inventory makes mention of it. The historical archives that are preserved in the museum can be consulted online or by making a simple request.
Statement by the museum, June 11 2020
On June 3rd, the AfricaMuseum announced its support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement at the museum entrance and on social media. In fact, the museum was established in 1898 as a scientific institution for the dissemination of colonial propaganda and support of colonial activities in Belgium. The museum has long conveyed a message of Western supremacy, deeply rooted in racism. We acknowledge this and we see the fight against racism as part of our own decolonisation process. We regard colonialism as an immoral form of governance, based on military occupation of a country, authoritarian and racist governance, and exploitation of a country's wealth for the benefit of the coloniser.
Immediately after our post, some activists condemned our message to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, because they thought it was hypocritical. Some even felt that we were appropriating a battle that was not ours. Of course, that was not our intention. We regret that this action has offended some people.
We are well aware that the museum, through its history, has played an important role in Belgium and Europe in creating prejudices against Africans. We are convinced that today the museum has immense potential as an awareness-raising tool and as a forum for debate on fundamental themes in our society, such as colonial history or racism and its roots in colonial propaganda. These topics are important themes in our permanent exhibition, and are regularly the focus of events organised by the museum.
We are also aware that the museum keeps objects in its collections of which it is not the moral owner. Part of the museum's collections were acquired in a context of violence, injustice and unequal relations, especially during the period of Congo Free State. This story is also told in our permanent exhibition and we actively participate in the ongoing debates on the return of African cultural heritage, and in a dialogue with involved African actors. We enter into an open and constructive dialogue with representatives from the museum field and with Belgian and African authorities, as well as with Belgians of African origin. Our policy on restitution is transparent and is explained on our website. In this context, we have also set up a residency programme for independent African scientists to investigate the circumstances in which these collections were acquired. The AfricaMuseum also has a strict code of ethics for the organisation of events.
We would also like to point out that the sculpture group with the bust of Leopold II located in the park near the museum does not fall under our jurisdiction, but under that of the park management. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the 21st century, the museum has been undergoing a process of decolonisation and we feel it is essential to contextualize the statues of controversial figures from the colonial period, such as Leopold II. In this context, we encourage the local authorities to engage in a dialogue with the communities for whom these statues represent a strong and painful symbol of the colonial period. Thus, the museum takes the initiative to discuss the future not only of the group of sculptures in the park but also of other colonial representations in the municipality of Tervuren with the relevant authorities.
We hope that this message shows our support for the anti-racism movement and we regret that we have hurt people with some of our messages.