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African "Colonial" Museum In Belgium Closes Doors For A Facelift

posted 29 Nov 2013, 08:00 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 29 Nov 2013, 08:00 ]

Belgium's controversial African museum that dates back to the 19th century has closed its doors to the public for about three years. The gallery which depicts Congo's colonial past under the rule of King Leopold II, aims to re-emerge with a more contemporary representation of the country and ofAfrica as a whole.

TERVURENBELGIUM (NOVEMBER 27, 2013) (REUTERS) -  The Royal Museum of Central Africa, which is often referred to as the last colonial museum in the world, has closed its doors to the public for renovation.

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The museum aims to create space within the building for contemporary African art, more than a half-century after the independence of the former Belgium Congo.

Works will last several years and the museum plans to reopen in 2017 with new architecture, a permanent exhibition and more social activities.

Apart from a new appearance, the museum will also seek to change its narrative thread that has often been criticized for being outdated, presenting Africa during its colonial days.

The gallery dates back to the nineteenth century when King Leopold II established the Congo Free State, taking possession of the area as his own private property.

The exhibitions display the hardship and the cruelty of life under colonial rulers, with millions of Congolese said to have been killed during Leopold's reign.

One of the most controversial pieces of the museum is the "leopardman" statue, which represents a group of murderers disguised in leopard cloaks, who used to slaughter innocent victims to spread fear across Europe.

Other statues such as the golden sculptures of giant European missionaries looking down on pint-sized Africans in loin-clothes, with the plaque "Belgium brings civilization to Congo" attached below, also symbolize Belgium's colonial power.

A giant canoe in the centre of an exhibition room, which fits almost 100 people, was used to ship women and children to the African village built by Leopold II in the heart of the forest in Tervuren, just outside Brussels.

The director of the museum, Guido Gryseels, says the building dates back to 1910 and the infrastructure is no longer suitable for the needs of a modern museum.

He added that time is now appropriate for a fundamental shift in visitation as Belgians have changed their perceptions of their colonial past.

"Perhaps 20 years ago would have been too early to renovate the museum. It's only in the last 10 years that the minds in Belgium have changed. There has been a lot of events such as the major exhibition we had on the colonial past in 2005 and that really gave a comprehensive view of the colonization both in positive aspects and very critical aspects that led to a major soul searching among the Belgian population and I don't think there is any Belgian who thinks the same way about the colonial past today than it did ten years ago, so the time is now right to have this renovation," he said.

Over the last couple of years the museum has been closely working with African diasporas to coordinate the planning of the renovation and cultural activities.

Yoto Djongakodi, the Congolese head of the COMRAF group which works with Gryseels on the project, explained that the museum needs to reinvent its image in order to attract new visitors.

"The students who visit, and who know a bit of history and pre-history, when they enter this room they see the pre-historic man. They don't see the real African man as he is, not even how he was in the traditional age. There is no doubt a negative image, so we our aim is to succeed in preventing visitors from leaving with such a negative feeling," he said.

Despite wide criticism, visitors have mixed feelings about the museum's exhibitions.

"We found a museum that really represents the age of the colonial spirit of the superiority of the white man, because I haven't seen anywhere in the museum black people dominating, it was either a servant or also the superiority of the missionaries, or of the king, but nowhere is the active black population presented," said Francois Stein, a museum visitor from Luxembourg.

"For me personally it is not shocking given that it already dates from many years back, and back then that was the image that we had of Africa. And it is true that maybe today that has evolved and that all this needs to be transformed," said Christiane Dralauts, a regular visitor to the museum fromBelgium.

"No, I don't think it is shocking, quite the opposite it presents a pretty unbiased and clear vision of what happened at the time of colonisation, etceteras. I don't think it's bad," said Kapinga Prisca, a museum visitor from Africa.

The museum will spend almost 75 million euros ($102 million) for the refurbishment, money allocated by the Belgian government.

The new facilities will include a new building with modern collections mainly coming from Congo, but also from other regions of Africa, displaying more than 10 million zoological specimens and 180,000 ethnological items.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa welcomes almost 130.000 visitors every year.