Anika Gouhl Teruven, Belgium 19 June 2019
“If nothing is said, we can imagine everything we want to imagine.” Those were the words our tour guide greeted us with at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. It was only a few minutes into the tour that I realized that quote very succinctly describes the core mission of the Royal Museum in Teruven, Belgium.
Upon our arrival to the newly renovated facility, known colloquially as the AfricaMuseum, we were brought to a painting that quite literally framed the entire museum experience. The work, Chéri Samba’s Réorganisation, depicts the very recent personal reckoning of the AfricaMuseum. In it, a sculpture of a Congolese assassin hunches over a sleeping countryman, poised to strike. To the left, white museum employees pull the statue into the museum’s doors. On the right, African men and women pull the statue away from the museum employees. The museum director stands behind, watching the struggle with crossed arms. The caption reads “It’s true that it is sad but in fact the museum must become fully organized.”
The painting represents the overarching challenge that the AftricaMuseum is now facing: how to grapple with its colonialist past and update its portrayal of a people it helped discount and marginalize. That’s not an easy task, but the sentiment is echoed through the many displays. I was impressed with the museum’s comprehensive reorganization. The effort reflects the AfricaMuseum’s willingness to change with the times and to improve upon recent progress.
Our tour guide next led us to the room where the statue in the painting actually stood. The assassin was even more imposing in person. However, the statue was surrounded by other statues, some of men in intimidating poses, others of Congolese making tools, caring for children, or even fighting off slavers. The sculptures on their own only gave insight to a single aspect of the Congolese people. Only together did they provide a better portrait of the Congo’s history. It was here that our tour guide made a point to emphasize how important it was to form opinions from more than one source.
This immediately reminded me of the Ted Talk our group had watched earlier on the European Union program, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” In the museum and in the Ted Talk, we were warned of the danger of reducing a people, a culture, or a history to a single perspective. The message from the speech was further reinforced by our tour guide’s reminder: if we want to treat others with the tolerance and respect they deserve, we need to take the initiative to view them through multiple perspectives, rather than through the lens of a single opinion.
Keeping this exact philosophy in mind, the AfricaMuseum has worked to re-contextualize its many artifacts and displays. As we walked through the halls, working our way up from the subterranean exhibits to the famous rotunda on the first floor, it was clear that the AfricaMuseum took the danger of a single story seriously.
We continued on in the subterranean exhibit, coming to a miniature model of the museum itself. Here, our tour guide told us the history of the actual museum. It was built by King Leopold II, known as the “building king.” Originally, the museum grounds were filled with stolen artifacts and served as a propaganda tool for Belgian colonialism. Our group learned that King Leopold II even ordered for a small group of Congolese men, women, and children to be brought to Belgium. Here they were forced to recreate their tribes from home and to live on the museum grounds. They were enclosed by a barrier, and Belgians would visit the museum, watching the displaced Congolese like a zoo exhibit. That piece of history was one of the parts of the tour that stuck with me the most. It was then that I began to grasp how much damage had been done to the Congolese during the Colonial Era.
Continuing on with our tour, we walked to the Languages and Music exhibit. Amongst the artifacts we visited and learned about the beautifully woven fabrics, intricately carved pottery, and impressively large drums of the Congolese people. One of the highlights included when the tour guide explained the use of tonal languages in Africa. Essentially, the musicality of a word conveys its meaning, where different tones of the same word mean different things.
Our tour moved on to an exhibit of ritual masks, where men would wear decorative masks to channel their ancestors during ceremonial dances and fights. The masks were made with finely carved wood, raffia grass, and shells to signify wealth. Our tour guide noted that much is known about some of the masks, while next to nothing about others. I was shocked to learn that a portion of the artifacts were blatantly stolen from Africans. In some cases, there’s record of Belgians sneaking into African villages at night and taking prized possessions. Under these circumstances, the history of these masks were lost, unknown to this day.
Our tour concluded with the exhibit on present day Congo. I was surprised to see that in the center of the room, a towering robot swiveled in place. The robot was a traffic conductor, designed by a Congolese female engineer. It was in stark contrast to the ritual masks we had just seen, a futuristic centerpiece in a room steeped in colonial history. It was a fitting symbol of the progress that the Congolese region has cultivated, and the ways in which conversations about African culture have begun to change.
The museum had begun a transformation. Where the Congolese people were once treated as a zoo exhibit to be gawked at, they were now portrayed as a complex, thriving culture.
Our final stop was in the grand rotunda of the Royal Museum. In it, we looked at the colonial statues lined in alcoves along the walls. There were statues representing Belgium bringing well-being, civilization, and security to the African region. Where once stood statues of Congolese natives, placed below the colonial art, was a new installation. It was central in the rotunda. There was no mistaking that it was the focal point, not the antique figures on the wall. It was the profile of an African figure, with their head held high. It was hopeful, unflinching, and a welcome change from the Royal Museum of the past.