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Decolonising the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium's Second Museum Age

  • Vicky Van Bockhaven (a1)

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In December 2018, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium, reopened its doors after a renovation project that started nearly 20 years ago. Founded by the infamous King Leopold II, the RMCA contains cultural and natural history collections from Belgium's former colonies of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as other parts of Africa and beyond. Today, a new ‘Welcome pavilion’ leads the visitor through a monumental subterranean corridor to the historic building's basement and to an introduction to the history of the collections. The exhibition halls on the ground level have been refurbished, including the old colonial maps painted on the walls, while in the Crocodile Room, the original display has been retained as a reminder of the museum's own history. The largest halls now present displays linked to the scientific disciplines and themes within the museum's research remit (Figure 1): ‘Rituals and Ceremonies’ (anthropology), ‘Languages and Music’ (linguistics and ethnomusicology), ‘Unrivalled art’, ‘Natural History’ (biology), ‘Natural resources’ (biology, geology) and ‘Colonial History and Independence’ (history, political science). Eye-catching developments include: a room featuring some of the statues of a racist style and subject matter, which were formerly exhibited throughout the museum, and are now collected together in a kind of ‘graveyard’ (although this symbolic rejection is not properly explained); a new Afropea room focusing on diaspora history; a section on ‘Propaganda and representation’ (Imagery), a Rumba studio and a Taxolab. In place of racist statues, and occupying a central position in the Rotunda, is a new sculpture by Aimé Mpane named ‘New breath, or burgeoning Congo’. The accompanying label states that this piece “provides a firm answer” to the remaining allegorical colonial sculptures in the Rotunda by “looking at a prosperous future”. Alas, this answer is not as clear as is claimed and its message may be lost on many visitors.

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References

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