“Colonialism as a system of governance is now considered immoral, authoritarian, racist, based on military occupation and exploitation.”
— Guido Gryseels
I’m an unrepentant fan of most things Belgian, including beer, food, beercycling and the invention of the saxophone; in a pinch, you can even throw in Jean Claude Van Damme, who was born in Brussels in 1960, 70-odd days after me (in New Albany).
However, the story of Belgium’s colonial experience is sad and instructive. It cannot be repeated often enough. King Leopold is one of those nasty historical figures best forgotten, except doing so would risk burying the complete story of his genocidal reign in the Congo.
I was unaware that the Royal Museum for Central Africa had undergone an ideological refit. During two or three of my visits to Belgium, I was within range, but wasn’t able to seek it out.
Next time, maybe it will be possible.
It is a magnificently bizarre hybrid. Still officially called the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but better known as the Africa Museum, it cannot help but ooze colonial triumphalism, despite recent protestations of egalitarian diversity. Housed in a majestic purpose-built palace 20 minutes’ drive east of Brussels, it stands above a lake amid parkland. Immaculate gravel paths sweep around the site. However radically the interior may have been refashioned to reflect new attitudes to Africa, the grandeur of King Leopold II’s design and the fervour of his desire to promote his imperial venture into the continent’s heart still overwhelm the visitor. The monarch ruled Congo as a private estate nearly 80 times bigger than his European homeland from 1885 until a year before his death in 1909; his double-l motif is embossed on almost every wall and above many an alcove.
Short of knocking the entire edifice flat, the museum’s current regime, run since 2001 by Guido Gryseels, a 66-year-old agricultural expert, has spent the past five years behind closed doors seeking to put a modern imprint on an irredeemably archaic structure. It reopens on December 9th. “We’ll be criticised on both sides,” predicts Mr Gryseels, who, like many modern museum bosses, is perforce a canny diplomat. “For not going far enough and for being too politically correct” …