The viewpoints of the museum
What is the museum’s position on colonization today?
Colonialism is a form of government based on military occupation, authoritarian and sometimes 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.
How does the museum reflect on the regime of the Congo Free State?
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.
What is the museum’s position on the restitution of African cultural heritage?
The vast majority of African art heritage is found in Western museums and private collections.
The RMCA’s collections were also largely established during the colonial period. This inevitably raises questions about the way in which they were acquired, and therefore also about their possible return to their country of origin. The museum participates with an open and constructive attitude in the debates that are being held on this subject and does not shy away from discussions about the future of African cultural heritage in Europe.
Between 1976 and 1982, the RMCA transferred 114 ethnographic artefacts to the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre in Kinshasa. It also transferred some 600 objects to the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare.
The RMCA has not received any recent formal requests for restitution but is willing to enter into a dialogue with the national museums of the countries concerned. It has partnerships with the national museums of DR Congo and Rwanda, and with the Musée des Civilisations Noires in Dakar. Currently, the museum is developing a policy to facilitate access to its collections for African museums. It is digitalizing cultural heritage such as archives, photographs and films, and will transfer them in that form to the countries concerned. Furthermore, the RMCA is intensifying provenance research into artefacts that may have been acquired illegally.
Are there human remains in the museum’s collections?
The RMCA preserves two mummies, which ended up in the museum collection in the 1930s via the Ministry of the Colonies. It concerns two men whose bodies were naturally mummified. They were examined for the first time in 2000. The researchers were unable to determine exactly how old the bodies are but were able to find out that they were shepherds from the Kivu region. They would have died in a cave between the 17th and 19th centuries.
In 1964, the museum closed its department of physical anthropology. 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.
Currently, the museum still preserves some human remains that have been incorporated into the ethnographic collections. It concerns, for example, musical instruments whose sound box consists of a skullcap, and a horn that has a piece of jawbone attached to it.
What is the “Charte de l’impérialisme” ?
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.