An AfricaMuseum that upholds its responsibilities, despite missteps.

Director General, Bart Ouvry



A museum tells a story, it moves, it entertains its audience, it provides insights, but it also wants to play its role in society.
Many museums were founded in the 19th century and served to tell the tale of fledgling nation-states. As the bourgeoisie grew in influence, its members increasingly viewed museums as palaces of the knowledge, wealth and power that gave the nation its identity. The AfricaMuseum is no exception – it was created in 1898 to promote King Leopold II’s colonial project

This was 125 years ago. It has also been five years since an enthusiastic team inaugurated a revamped AfricaMuseum, one with a new and engaging narrative guided by the saying ‘Everything passes, except the past’ – a motto that the historian in me fully identified with when I took over the helm of the museum six months ago. The museum in Tervuren is a former colonial museum that tells a new story, with a critical eye, within its colonial walls. 

Burundian photographer Teddy Mazina was invited to delve into the photo archives of the AfricaMuseum. This was among the many activities marking our double 125/5 anniversary, which also include a memorable fashion event by designer Rosy Sambwa, the premiere of Cécile Djunga’s new show, Museum Talks featuring our scientific research, and much more.

For the past few days, social media has been buzzing over the decision to allow access to Teddy’s photo exhibit My Name is No-body only with the guidance of the photographer himself. This decision was not made in haste. The exhibit shows racist and violent words and images: the liberal use of the word n****, Congolese persons in chains, and so on.

Teddy Mazina denounces the absurdity, the staged nature, and the violence of both the images and the corresponding labels. He finds the language used absurd and harmful. In a video, those words are projected onto his fragile body. The colonial images from our archives and the  descriptions that come with them are demeaning not only to the persons of African heritage who see them today. Showing them unfiltered would demonstrate a lack of respect for victims of violence and racism worldwide.

It was the right decision to ensure that individual visitors would not simply be confronted by these racist and misogynistic images, but to ask Teddy to accompany viewers, share his doubts and his indignation at the way his ancestors were depicted, and express his desire to deconstruct stereotypes. As a museum we could have guided the project better, with more scientific input and more dialogue regarding the most appropriate way to denounce this blatant injustice. As we await a deeper exploration of our photo archives, we wanted to deliver Teddy’s message in a fitting manner. 

AfricaMuseum is far from infallible. When the museum reopened, we did not realize how much the sculptures of the Grand Rotunda reinforced negative images. The installation by Aimé Mpane and Jean Pierre Müller gave us a chance to correct this. When it became clear that the sculpture depot in the museum introduction zone was poorly understood and that the Leopard-Man ended up being the visitor’s first image of Africa, we decided to move the colonial statues to a room that can be visited with a guide. In the same way, we have made adjustments to My Name is No-body because we realized we were not quite on the right track.

Dealing with our past is not a clear and straight path. New insights come with the passage of time. As the AfricaMuseum, we must always strive to tell a better story – not just from the viewpoint of the colonial official, but also through the eyes of mothers whose children are paraded in chains and called cannibals, or the mind of a granddaughter when she realizes that the naked, vulnerable girl in a photo is her grandmother. And perhaps this kind of nuanced understanding of other people would go towards preventing the kind of racist attack that an African researcher, one of our colleagues from Congo, was subjected to a few weeks ago while on public transport in Brussels.

Bart Ouvry, Director-general of the AfricaMuseum