Colonial ghosts haunt Belgium as Africa museum eyes change

Mon Feb 24, 2014 2:54am EST
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By John O'Donnell

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - At the entrance to Belgium's Museum for Central Africa stands a giant golden statue of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes, along with a plaque that reads: "Belgium brings civilization to Congo".

The statue and some of the exhibits inside anger many visitors for the way they portray African people and Belgium's brutal colonial past.

Now Belgium wants to change that, at least a little. It is spending 66 million euro ($90 million) to modernize the museum, set in rolling gardens outside Brussels, and put a new face on the colonial experience.

But the golden missionary will stay, as will many other symbols of local 'savages', including a statue of the 'leopard man', a native wearing a mask poised to attack his sleeping victim. The decisions about what to keep raise questions about the extent to which Belgium is facing up to its past even now, more than five decades since Congo won its independence.

Guido Gryseels, the museum's director, says it's a delicate balancing act.

"We will be very critical, but what we want to do is provide the elements to the visitor so that he can make up his own mind. There are a lot of good things that happened too.

"What was realized in terms of infrastructure, roads, airports, ports, education, health facilities, research, is really quite incredible," he said.

Some people reject that position outright. Belgium left just a few dozen Congolese university graduates and an economy built chiefly to supply Belgium with raw materials. Even today, there is just 2,000 km (1,250 miles) of paved road in a nation the size of Western Europe.   Continued...

A woman walks in an empty hall at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels, January 22, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir