On December 1, 2013, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium, closed its doors to allow for a three-year renovation. Several years of planning and preparations preceded this moment, with respect to both the museum building and its projected extensions and to the necessity to develop a new permanent exhibition. The closure of the museum received considerable public attention. Taking the closing events and their press coverage as a starting point, I wish to reflect on the divergence of opinion that exists with respect to what is at stake with the RMCA's renovation project (Fig. 1). In so doing I will pay particular attention to the evolution in the way the institution's collections have been framed in the last two decades. My main argument is that parallel to the development of a new critical thinking in the museum, the RMCA has, in line with global developments, jumped on the heritage train in search of a new identity, a new mission, and a particular form of excellence. The ensuing representational practices have political implications that are rarely visible at the surface but nonetheless generate a range of tensions that may pose a threat to the renovation's overall success. I will conclude by making a plea for how the museum might be turned into a place of effective intercultural dialogue that is capable of sustaining the weight of history. I should specify that my perspective is one of participant observation. The ideas expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues at the RMCA.
The RMCA's renovation project took root at the end of the 1990s, when the Belgian Development Cooperation started funding a process to “update and refurbish” the outdated permanent displays. For a variety of reasons these had been left largely unchanged since the late 1950s, when the Congo was still a Belgian colony. The objective was to bring their content more in accordance with both contemporary public policy and scholarship and to turn them into a more effective tool for raising public awareness and promoting dialogue about North-South issues.1 The initial project led to a number of critical temporary exhibitions in the first decade of the twenty-first century that testified to a growing concern with the history of the collections, issues of cultural property, and demands for more inclusive representations.
The exhibition “ExitCongoMuseum” (2000) for the first time zoomed in on the conditions under which most of the objects were collected in Congo, determined by the social, economic, and political inequalities of colonialism. The exhibition also included a section with contemporary art that was curated by the Congolese artist Toma Luntumbue. “Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era” (2005) for the first time tackled Belgium's colonial past in an exhibition that was both successful and controversial. The exhibition “Indépendance! Congolese Tell Their Stories of 50 Years of Independence” (2010) told the history of the independence of Congo from the perspective of Congolese. “Kongo across the Waters” (2013) looked at the long history of West Central Africa and traced Kongo contributions to the development of African American cultures in the US South, putting collections of the RMCA for the first time in an Atlantic perspective. Other landmark exhibitions of smaller size included “Headdresses” (2006), which featured the results of an in-depth study of the collecting histories of the exhibited objects, and “Congo Far West” (2011), the first exhibition at the RMCA based on the work of two African artists in residence, the Congolese Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza.
These exhibitions are the ones that are most often referred to as having charted a new course for the RMCA (Aldrich 2009:151, Hasian and Wood 2010:137, Bragard 2011:94, Hoenig 2014:9, 18, Gryseels 2014:8–10, Ceuppens 2015:89–90, Silverman 2015:633–37). The museum, however, has produced several other temporary exhibitions that seem to have no place in the selective historiography of the institution's renewal. I will come back to this later.
CLOSED FOR RENOVATION
The museum's doors were symbolically locked after a festive weekend with free admission, creative workshops, concerts, and theater. No fewer than 15,000 visitors took advantage of a last opportunity to see the old museum before the galleries would be completely emptied. One of the highlights of a strongly media-friendly program of events was the evacuation of the 3.5-meter-tall stuffed African bush elephant from one of the galleries. Its removal required the deployment of expert handlers and a group of enthusiastic volunteers, encouraged by a cheering crowd of museum visitors and journalists. In the following days, conservators and technical staff immediately started to dismantle the permanent displays and to empty the museum from basement to attic. Two-and-a-half months later, the last object was moved out. This was the 22-meter-long dugout canoe made by Lengola carvers from the DRC's Orientale Province, acquired by the museum in 1958 (Fig. 2). The spectacle was attended by two members of the federal government and bathed in the same jolly atmosphere as when the elephant left.
The closure of the museum was well covered in the Belgian press, which generally focused on the specific renovation plans and on the range of activities that the museum would organize in other venues during the period of construction and reinstallation. Many articles and comments displayed clear overtones of national pride and nostalgia. The RMCA was said to be a “showpiece” within the nation's museum landscape, holding the world's largest collections from Central Africa and possessing a “unique charm.” The reasons as to why the museum needed a renovation were mostly explained in terms of technical issues and constraints. The museography was said to be outdated and the infrastructure “no longer responded to the needs of a modern museum.” With respect to the need to develop a new permanent exhibition, readers were told that the RMCA would shift its attention to contemporary Africa and thus no longer be a museum primarily focused on the past.2
The international press also picked up on the story of the RMCA's temporary closure, but in ways that sharply contrasted with national reporting. For the British Independent, the project was about “modernising the monument to King Leopold II and his murderous reign in the Belgian Congo.”3 International coverage indeed generally focused on King Leopold II, founder of the “Congo Free State,” whom Time magazine named “one of history's most brutal colonial rulers.”4 The swift association made between the RMCA and Leopold II in the international media is part of the impact of Adam Hochschild's 1998 bestseller King Leopold's Ghost. Arguably more than any other project, Hochschild's book put the RMCA on the world map, albeit as a site of contested memories. Hochschild not only repopularized the story of Leopold's brutal exploitation of the Congo and of the atrocities committed against the Congolese population, but also explained how the “Museum of the Congo” at Tervuren, founded by Leopold, had been a tool of his vast colonial propaganda machine.
After the annexation of Leopold's private colony by the Belgian State in 1908, the renamed Museum of the Belgian Congo had kept its primary propaganda function. None of the evidence of widespread abuses during Leopold's rule was ever displayed or discussed in the museum. On the contrary, the museum contributed much to the rehabilitation and glorification of its founder. In the decades following Congolese independence in 1960, a series of modifications were made to the permanent displays, but the original story line with its clear colonial message was left largely unchanged (Couttenier 2010:131–37). The renamed Royal Museum for Central Africa had continued to project the colonial discourse about Belgium bringing civilization and development to the Congo.5 Not surprisingly, when King Leopold's Ghost came out, the RMCA was on the receiving end of the scorn that the book widely provoked.
Judging by what appeared in the national press, one is led to believe that there is little concern in Belgium over public representations that perpetuate the projection of colonial ideologies, including those at the RMCA. If critical voices were present at the museum's closing events, they were overruled by a particular enthusiasm that requires further examination. The state of mind that allowed the museum's closure to happen in a festive mood, with colorful anecdotes and laughter drowning out the indictments voiced in foreign media, is best understood by looking at a process that operates at less conscious levels and involved all major stakeholders regardless of their stance on colonial history. The outcome of this process has been the recognition of the RMCA's former colonial collections as important “heritage.”
The past two decades have seen a proliferation of critical analyses of the concept of heritage, which has come to encompass an ever-widening scope of objects, places, traditions, and phenomena. Heritage is no longer seen as something that exists as a mere given—as something that needs to be found, preserved, and celebrated—but as the outcome of a process of cultural production, a process that has been dubbed “heritagization” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1995, Lowenthal 1998, Davallon 2010, Roigé and Frigolé 2010, Del Mármol, Morell, and Chalcraft 2015). Looking at the promotion of objects to the status of heritage, Jean Davallon has examined the different operations that contribute to this process. First comes the interest given to an object by a particular social group, a shared feeling that an object possesses value. Next comes the study of the object, the mobilization of supporting documentation or the production of new knowledge. Third comes its official declaration as heritage by a recognized authority. Fourth is the organization of access to the object, by putting it at the symbolic disposal of the community. Fifth and last is the transmission of the object to future generations (Davallon 2010:50–52). In museums, where collections already exist, the initial valuation that triggers the redefinition of them as heritage often takes the form of more or less dramatically staged “rediscoveries,” in which visitors are implicated through the exhibition of such treasures.
Besides analysing the steps by which the making of heritage unfolds, scholars have drawn attention to what heritagization does to its objects and to the human relationships that the objects mediate. Heritagization may be described as a social process that builds relationships based on values. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995:370), values commonly attributed to objects that become heritage include “pastness, exhibition, difference, and […] indigeneity.” Otherwise stated, heritage objects are seen as representing “an embodied corpus of higher values, such as education, beauty, a better past time and civilising projects of all sorts” (Del Mármol, Morell, and Chalcraft 2015:4). Heritage values impose the obligation to keep and preserve, to make available, and to transmit. They dictate a variety of rules that shape “patterns in the representations and behaviours towards [heritage] objects” (Davallon 2010:48–52). The fact that they do so in a nearly religious manner may tighten relationships within stakeholder groups, but this same feature may also lead to new forms of social exclusion.
HERITAGIZATION AT THE RMCA
Heritagization at the RMCA has taken place on two levels: on the one hand with respect to the museum building and on the other hand with respect to the collections. Designed by the French architect Charles Girault (1851–1933) by order of King Leopold II, the neoclassical museum building has been listed since 1985 as a protected monument, and much of its interior design and furniture is equally protected (Fig. 3).6 This means that the conservation logic extends to several elements which today are highly contested, including the gilded statues that present racist allegories of Belgian colonialism in the main rotunda and the plaques in memory of Belgian “pioneers” who perished in the Congo Free State (Luntumbue 2015:17, Ceuppens 2015:91). It may seem odd that the 1985 decision was based on the sole criteria of age and visual splendor. More striking is that, when the renovation plans were made concrete in 2008–2009, the overseeing governmental authorities treated the building's protected status as if it were a fact of nature. Since virtually none of the building's ideologically charged features could be changed, the €66.5 million invested by the federal government seem primarily targeted at restoring the paramount symbol of Leopold's imperialism to its former glory. The museum building thus significantly increases the challenge for curators to break away from the old colonialist discourse that is so poignantly encoded in its architecture and interior design (Ceuppens 2015:91).
The RMCA, however, has itself actively contributed to the heritagization of its main museum building. For a long time, the image of the façade with its central cupola was used as an icon in all official communication. From 2002 onward, visitors were offered guided tours that highlighted the main characteristics of the building and provided some historical context. In 2008 the RMCA published a book with fine architectural photography of its main building and permanent displays titled Souvenirs d'Afrique (Burton 2008). In 2011 the museum presented the exhibition “Uncensored,” which showed visitors parts of the building that were previously inaccessible to them while playing on popular imaginaries that had become part of the building's heritage status. An infamous postcolonial myth holds that the cellars of the museum contained all that ought to be hidden from public view about the dark pages of Belgian colonialism. While the exhibition's title implicitly confirmed the myth, visitors were allowed to stroll through the cellars and make their discoveries of hunting trophies, elephant skulls, and cultural artifacts in impressive quantities (the latter brought from elsewhere in the museum for this occasion) (Fig. 4).
Heritagization has also transformed the RMCA's collections, which for the most part originated during the colonial period. Collected artifacts were the byproducts of knowledge practices that were integral to colonial strategies to secure control over African populations. The museum has been particularly profuse during the last two decades in praising the incredible wealth of its collections. The collection of African art and artifacts is proclaimed the largest in the world related to Central Africa. Another remark, recurrently made before the museum closed, was that the permanent exhibition of the museum displayed less than 1% of the collection, while the remaining 99% was kept in storage. A similar calculation, however, will most certainly apply to the new displays after the museum reopens.7
In the past two decades, the RMCA has repeatedly staged rediscoveries of its collections, starting with an exhibition titled “Hidden Treasures of the Tervuren Museum,” which opened in May 1995 and subsequently went on a tour through Europe, the United States, and Canada. The language of cultural heritage has been omnipresent at the museum since the turn of the twenty-first century. The heritage message—“this is important heritage”—has been central in the museum's program of temporary exhibitions. An important milestone was “Congo: Nature and Culture,” an exhibition said to be about the natural and cultural heritage of Congo that opened at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in September 2004.8 This event gave to the RMCA's commitment to heritage a welcome endorsement by a global institution.
In line with the tendency of a continuously widening concept of heritage, the “Nature and Culture” show was followed by exhibitions of butterflies and moths in 2006, of wood samples in 2007, of masks and contemporary art in 2009, of colonial photography in 2010, and of spiders in 2012. The exhibition “Congo River: 4700 Kilometres Bursting with Nature and Culture,” on view from 2010 till 2013, offered a panoply of natural and cultural heritage items collected alongside the Congo.9 The museum also intensified a range of other activities that all made the collections stand out as valuable heritage. In 2006, a new division of Collection Management was created, and considerable resources were allocated in the following years to improving registration, conservation, the making of photographic reproductions, and the management of loans. In addition, an ambitious plan was launched to digitize the collections. In 2014, the RMCA restructured its research activities, and the division of Ethnography, which had existed since the start of the museum, merged with Archaeology to constitute the new division of Heritage Studies.
Ever since the 1995 exhibition of the RMCA's “treasures” and the telling of their particular histories in “ExitCongoMuseum”—histories that linked the objects back to their original creators and users—the question of whose heritage the museum is promoting has been a matter of debate. The collections have been praised as “African heritage” when their documentary value for the study of African societies needed to be underscored. Alternately, they were called “Belgian” when in one way or another their legal status was called into consideration. The presence of African heritage at the RMCA and the fact that their interpretation was the exclusive domain of the RMCA curators was for a long time not considered problematic.
After the turn of the twenty-first century, a new concept has gradually come into use at the RMCA and elsewhere to frame questions related to the cultural and intellectual ownership of museum objects. In 2000, former RMCA curator Boris Wastiau (2000:78) wrote of the collections as a “common cultural heritage.” Nowadays the standard expression is “shared heritage,” not only at the RMCA but also, for example, in Leiden and Berlin.10 The term was first commonly used in the context of architectural heritage. In former colonies, the label designates buildings that were originally designed by metropolitan architects but are now appropriated by postcolonial users. In the context of postcolonial museum collections, the notion of shared heritage works in the opposite way to denote what was created by Africans and collected by Europeans.
When African masks, musical instruments, or objects of daily use are called shared heritage, it is usually because people feel that they say something about Africa as well as about Europe. An African mask may inform us about its creator, about an aesthetic tradition, about its use and function in the context of a particular ritual. The same mask, in a European museum collection, may say something about its collector, about the museum that acquired it, and about European representations of Africa. It is the sum of this that supposedly substantiates the “shared heritage” qualification, posited as an ontological reality. The question, however, of how the sharing takes place is usually left untouched. There is, to start, quite obviously no sharing of legal ownership. Belgium, like many other countries, has strict laws that proclaim the inalienability of all that is registered in its national museum collections. Museums have therefore put much emphasis on the possibilities of sharing access to heritage, through exhibitions and visits to storage rooms, and more permanently through digitization and online databases. The way in which the RMCA has hinted at such forms of symbolic sharing typically echo the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which was signed by a number of leading museums in Europe and North America in 2002 and which the RMCA has publicly endorsed (Gryseels 2004).
In spite of considerable investments targeted at realizing the ideal of “shared heritage,” the notion has been rejected by some of the museum's stakeholders. Some have tackled the idea that digitization would be a viable alternative when repatriation or the sharing of real ownership is impossible or undesirable. Boast and Enote rightly pointed out that “the idea of virtual repatriation grew out of the goal of accommodating the needs of stakeholder communities without actually having to give the thing back.” There is no way for a photographic reproduction, made by the museum, and for bits of information about an object, gathered and organized by the same museum, to stand in for the real object (Boast and Enote 2013:110–11). Claims for repatriation emanating from source communities usually concern the object itself, since only the object itself is capable of embodying the historical relationship between themselves and the original makers and users.
Others have remarked that control over the means of production of shared heritage often remains fundamentally in the hands of the institution that owns the collections (Ceuppens 2015:95). Toma Luntumbue recently wondered how the museum would avoid an overly encyclopaedic and didactic approach that tends to give primacy to the expertise of the museum's curators. The question of who speaks for whom is all the more pertinent since the RMCA aims at becoming a museum primarily focused on contemporary African societies whose members are obviously available for consultation. Luntumbue also rejects the idea that the colonial past would constitute a shared history, reminding us that history is always written from a specific viewpoint that determines the selection of data to be included in the historical narrative (Luntumbue 2015:17).
Del Mármol, Morell, and Chalcraft (2015:3–11) offer an interpretative model that is helpful to understand the contested nature that is characteristic of much heritage. They underline the seductive promises of heritage, whose objects speak to our desire to pursue higher values. In addition to education and other worthy causes mentioned by the above authors, heritage-making at the RMCA seems driven by the altruism of celebrations of African creativity and genius, the justice that is seen to lie in the digital repatriation of data, and the idea that the promotion of African heritage contributes to sustainable development. Such promises, however, inevitably lead to frustration—disenchantment—when expectations are thwarted by the reifying character of the heritage-making process. A clear expression of this is found in Luntumbue's criticism of the museum's “monopoly over the symbolic management of representational spaces” and its “tendency to reduce the complexities of reality to abstract definitions” (Luntumbue 2015:17). Does the concept of “shared heritage,” in its current usage, then only make false promises?
Heritage, with its promotional vocabulary, captivating technologies, and appeal to higher values, has the power to unlock budgets and motivate people to work together on engaging projects. The uncritical depiction of heritage as a substantive reality, however, and the sacralization of heritage values conceal the fact that heritage is always the outcome of a process of cultural production, determined by the discourse and agency of those involved. The RMCA's commitment to the promotion of its collections as heritage bears the risk of limiting its actions to a range of standardized heritage practices whose managerial and political implications may exclude particular groups of stakeholders from participation. The effect of disempowerment and dispossession that may follow from this cannot be undone by a unilateral branding of the collections as “shared heritage.”
The ideals of education, intercultural dialogue, and community development can only be realized by putting in place modes of cultural production that are radically inclusive. In 2003 the RMCA initiated a permanent commission for consultation, called COMRAF, which unites delegates from African associations in Belgium and staff members of the RMCA. COMRAF has since been involved in the RMCA's programming, in the organization of diverse activities, and in preparations for the museum's renovation. In September 2014, COMRAF elected six professionals of African origin to directly participate in the development of the new permanent exhibition.11 The objective is to make sure that the RMCA's collaboration with representatives from source communities goes beyond occasional consultations, where presentations would go in one direction and Africans would at best have the opportunity to respond to what is shown to them. Radically inclusive methods require full participation in both the creative process and the decision making.
The collaboration with COMRAF may perhaps lead to the only meaningful interpretation of what a shared heritage may be, that is, when the common study and presentation of museum objects can forge a shared understanding of specific episodes or moments of the (colonial) past. The production of shared heritage as such requires a careful examinatvion of the conditions in which an object's status changed into that of a museum item, with consideration given to the agency of all those implicated. A shared understanding should go beyond knowing what the object collections hold or what there is to see at the surface level of old photographs. It should reveal the politics of representation, the production of meanings cast in multiple layers, and the lasting effects on all those involved in the process. Visitors should become aware of the fact that to a large extent “what is shown of Africa is a mirroring of the West, of the historical evolution of western efforts to understand Africa” (Luntumbue 2015:16). In the words of Hoenig, indeed, the RMCA should work on turning “a linear tour through signifiers of selective memory into a window of opportunity for the shared understanding of a traumatic past” (Hoenig 2014:20).
Personal communication with the cabinet of Development Cooperation, September 19, 2001.
Based on a review of what appeared in the Flemish newspapers De Standaard and De Morgen and in the French-language Le Soir and La Libre.
“Belgian Museum Faces up to Its Brutal Colonial Legacy,” The Independent, November 29, 2013.
“Forget King Leopold's Ghost. There Are Still Skeletons in His Closet,” Time, September 18, 2013.
The “Royal” in the museum's actual name is an honorific qualifier added to the names of many organizations and institutions in Belgium and, contrary to popular opinion, does not imply a direct institutional link with the monarchy.
Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, “Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika en dienstpaviljoenen,” in: Inventaris Onroerend Erfgoed, ID 300116, https://id.erfgoed.net/erfgoedobjecten/300116.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the size of the ethnographic collection was first estimated at 250,000 objects and later at 180,000. From 2006 on, the backlog in collection registration was caught up and the official figure now communicated is 120,000. See http://www.africamuseum.be/museum/collections/general/index_html.
The exhibition was later also on view at Tervuren and a modified version travelled to the National Museum of Lubumbashi in the DRC in 2007. See http://www.africamuseum.be/about-us/museum/history/temporaryexpo.
The present analysis aims to point at a general tendency and does not include all the RMCA's past temporary exhibitions. For a more complete listing, see http://www.africamuseum.be/about-us/museum/history/temporaryexpo.
Note how the concept is at the core of debates about the prestigious museum project Humboldtforum in Berlin. See Thomas E. Schmidt, “Wem gehören die Masken?,” Die Zeit, June 6, 2015, http://www.zeit.de/2015/21/kolonialismus-berliner-stadtschloss-humboldtforum.
See Ayoko Mensah, “Six Professionnels d'origine Africaine associés à la rénovation du Musée,” November 2015, http://renovation.africamuseum.be/six-professionnels-dorigine-africaine-associes-a-larenovation-du-musee.