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Africa Museum opens new room exploring racism

14:47 16/05/2023

The Royal Museum for Central Africa, also called the Africa Museum in Tervuren, has inaugurated a new room that focuses on racism.

Visitors to the museum who enter the room are confronted with 11 sentences containing a racist message, along with a series of newspaper articles and headlines about recent racist incidents in Belgium.

“This is an educational, reflection and discussion space on racism, linked to our museum's colonial past,” explained Salomé Ysebaert of the Africa Musueum's exhibitions department.

“Indeed, the Africa Museum grew out of the World Exhibition of 1897, when King Leopold II wanted to promote his colonial project with a colonial exhibition and had 267 Congolese brought to Belgium for that purpose, to exhibit them in a ‘human zoo’.”

In the coming weeks and months, several more activities will take place in which the role of the museum will be critically examined, including its connection to that 1897 ‘human zoo’.

“In 1898, that temporary exhibition was transformed into a permanent museum, which served as colonial propaganda,” Ysebaert said.

“It had to contrast the modernity of its own nation with the primitiveness of the rest of the world, it had to show the merits of colonial projects to the general public and justify the necessity of that colonial enterprise. Scientific research was thereby used as a tool for colonial purposes.”

Ysebaert explained that, until 2018, the Africa Museum’s permanent exhibition had a very Euro-centric view of Africa and Africans which earned the museum a lot of criticism from people of African origin in Belgium.

“The main criticism was that the depiction of Africa and Africans was very stereotypical and discriminatory. From that colonial past, we therefore created a space dedicated to racism,” said Ysebaert.

The Belgian human rights organisation Unia released a study in 2011 that showed that racism against people of Sub-Saharan origin is strongly influenced by the historical and colonial context.

“Racism can be seen as a legacy of slavery and colonialism,” Ysebaert said.

“As a colonial institution, as a propaganda tool, the Africa Museum has [in the past] participated in creating and spreading racist stereotypes, and therefore has a responsibility to acknowledge its past and provide a platform for discussion, education, and reflection on racism.”

The museum’s director general Bart Ouvry echoed the sentiment.

“Racism is still present in society today and this requires us to play our role in terms of education and awareness-raising,” Ouvry said.

“This space is in a place that all our visitors pass by, because it carries a message that lies at the heart of our mandate. We want to promote a set of values, and work for better relations between Africans and Europeans. The message against racism is a universal one, and I am convinced that we can play a role in that.”

Several more activities will take place at the museum in the coming months that aim to critically question its role – not only in the past but also in the present and future – both as a museum and in its function as an academic institution.

“We really want to start thinking about our past and our future,” said Ouvry.

“One of my ambitions is to set up a structured dialogue with people from the African diaspora. I also aim to re-establish a group of ‘Friends of the Museum’, which by definition must be very diverse, reflecting on what is going on in society.

"This museum should be a safe environment where everyone can talk about Africa-Europe relations, and where scholarly work is possible.”

Written by Helen Lyons