Repatriation and Restitution Required: Renovation of Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa Falls Short

By Meredith Reynolds

Associate Editor, Vol. 24

Tervuren_RMCA_entranceIn December 2018, Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa re-opened after a five-year renovation project.[1] The Royal Museum was originally created by Belgium’s King Leopold II in 1897 as a place for him to show off his colonial exploits.[2] The recent renovation aimed to transform the Royal Museum’s image as a monument to imperial conquest by adding contextualizing descriptions of Leopold’s brutality and incorporating some modern Congolese art.[3] Yet, it re-opened amid protests over its continued display of artifacts stolen from the region and its failure to erect a monument for the seven Congolese individuals who passed away after they were put on display at the museum.[4] As long as Belgium continues to claim ownership of stolen artifacts and reap the financial benefits of a museum with a more than one-hundred-year history of racist exploitation, its renovations cannot be considered truly transformative.

Other nations have begun to admit the need for repatriation of stolen museum collections. Most prominently, during a visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced a commitment to return stolen artifacts currently in French museums to Africa. As he asserted, “There are historical explanations for this, but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification.”[5] The announcement generated significant discord among French art historians and museum curators, but it sent a strong message about ownership, restitution, and possibilities for restorative justice. According to the Report commissioned by Macron, an estimated 90-95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently kept outside of the African continent.[6]

In contrast, Belgium has not offered to return any of the artifacts currently in the Royal Museum. The museum’s renovations had the potential to spark important new conversations and structural changes, but Belgium’s history of willful ignorance prevailed. When international pressure finally forced King Leopold to give up his colony back in 1908, he reportedly claimed, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.”[7] He then burned the records of his colonial atrocities in his palace furnaces.[8] While a few authors in the early twentieth century brought attention to the humanitarian crisis of Leopold’s colonization, generating “some political embarrassment,” there was no attempt by the Belgian government to remedy or rectify his actions.[9]  Rather, Leopold’s destruction of historical records freed the government to embellish and promulgate its own record of what happened in those years. This led to what historian Adam Hochschild has called “a striking example of the politics of forgetting.”[10]

The next generation of Belgians was taught the “positives” of colonialism through their school curricula. According to the current director of the Royal Museum, Guido Gryseels, many teachers were former missionaries, so they espoused the “civilizing” mission in Congo.[11] He elaborated in a later interview, “We were brought up knowing that we brought civilisation and good to Africa. [Allegations of brutality] weren’t taught in schools.”[12] Even within Congo, students were studying Belgian textbooks. Aime Mpane, a Congolese visual artist, recalled being taught in high school that King Leopold was “honorable and important.”[13]

Faced with questions and accusations following the publication of King Leopold’s Ghost in 1999, a prominent book exposing many of the colonial era’s atrocities, the administration of the Royal Museum took it upon themselves to address the charges. The administration decided to commission historians and remodel the museum. While from the outside this could seem like a move towards assuming responsibility and accountability, it does not appear that any representatives from Congo were asked for opinions or consulted about how to move forward. Primary control and decision-making power remained with Belgian administrators.[14]

This is an example of what educational researchers Hytten and Warren refer to as the “discourse of fix-it.”[15] A similar “fix-it” attitude has been observed by Hytten and Warren among white students who are confronted with legacies of racism in schools. White students, to cope with their discomfort, jump quickly into attempts at finding solutions. This response allows the white students to maintain a feeling of “moral securit[y]” rather than genuinely confront their past.[16] Most damaging, this response allows for the privileged people who perpetuated the harms to control the discourse on how to address them.[17] The harmed population is not permitted to have a prominent role in the “discourse of fix-it.” In a manner reminiscent of the Berlin Conference – the 1884 international meeting where European powers carved up ownership of Africa without any recognition of existing sovereignties – the Royal Museum declared its ongoing ownership of these artifacts independently of Congo’s input.

The UN Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage provides tools to reinforce rather than challenge these practices. The Convention uses language of global unity to further an agenda that maintains the status quo of cultural heritage possession.[18] It describes world heritage as something belonging to the international community collectively, and its preamble calls on the “international community as a whole to participate in the protection” of world heritage.[19] The preamble even cautions that the protection offered by certain nations “often remains incomplete because of the scale of the resources which [protecting the heritage] requires.”[20] Such language provides international sanction for Belgium’s decision to prioritize its own agenda for the artifacts, simply because it has the capacity to “protect” them.

Democratic Republic of Congo is opening its own museum (funded by South Korea) next year in Kinshasa, and Congo’s former President Joseph Kabila had announced plans to officially request the return of artifacts from the Royal Museum.[21] It is unclear if the newly-elected President, Felix Tshisekedi, will follow through on this request. Royal Museum Director Gryseels has stated that he is open to some repatriation but insists that “[t]he question is under what conditions. How do we define what was legally acquired and what was not legally acquired?”[22] Gryseels also uses language echoing the concerns put forward by the UN Convention on Cultural and Natural Heritage regarding variations in resources: “They don’t even have a storage place… There are 85,000 artifacts in Kinshasa, stored in rather difficult conditions, not more than a barn actually.”[23] Regardless of the factual accuracy of such statements and the legitimacy of such concerns, they serve as a distraction from the real issues of justice and ownership. Further, if such concerns are genuine, the countries with resources could invest them into the development of museums internationally. Belgium did spend $75 million on its own renovation, after all.[24]

As more nations begin to confront the imperialist nature of their museums, and the various ways in which they have profited (and continue to profit) from colonial exploitation, the international community needs to move the dialogue away from universalist notions of heritage protection and engage instead with plans for repatriation and restitution. Museums must relinquish control of the artifacts and wealth obtained through colonial conquest in order to truly transform.


[1] Rob Picheta, Belgian Colonial Museum Re-opens amid Protests and Demands for Return of Artifacts, CNN (Dec. 8, 2018), https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/belgium-africa-museum-artefacts-scli-intl/index.html?utm_source=fbCNNi&utm_campaign=africa&utm_medium=social.

[2] Joanna Kakissis, Belgian Museum Looks at Country’s History of Colonialism and Racism, NPR (Sept. 2, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/09/02/644085214/belgian-museum-looks-at-countrys-history-of-colonialism-and-racism.

[3] Id.

[4] Picheta, supra note 1.

[5] Christopher Hooton, French Museums Should Return Looted Art Treasures to Africa, Report Commissioned by Macron Says, Independent (Nov. 22, 2018), https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/france-museums-art-looted-africa-colonial-heritage-law-macron-report-a8646611.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost 294 (1998).

[8] Id.

[9] David M. Crane, “Boxed In:” Semantic Indifference to Atrocity, 40 Case W. Res. J. Int’l L. 137, 138 (2008).

[10] Hochschild, supra note 7, at 294.

[11] Kakissis, supra note 2.

[12] Andrew Osborn, Belgium Exhumes Its Colonial Demons: Historians Vow to Unearth Truth about Allegations of Genocide in Congo, Guardian (July 13, 2002), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/jul/13/humanities.artsandhumanities.

[13] Kakissis, supra note 2.

[14] Picheta, supra note 1.

[15] Discussed in Sven Schütze, Ambivalent Futures: On the Restitution of Objects and White Innocence, Vöelkerrechtsblog (Sept. 21, 2018), https://voelkerrechtsblog.org/ambivalent-futures/.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18]See generally United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (adopted Nov. 16, 1972), https://whc.unesco.org/archive/convention-en.pdf.

[19] Id. at 1.

[20] Id.

[21] Picheta, supra note 1.

[22] Daniel Boffey, Belgium’s Revamped Africa Museum Triggers Request by DRC, Guardian (Dec. 8, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/belgium-revamped-africa-museum-demands-congo-kabila.

[23] Id.

[24] Picheta, supra note 1.

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