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Staff at Africa Museum get vocabulary update

16:19 04/09/2018

Staff working at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren have received a memo on recommended language. The idea is to eliminate stereotypical words and phrases when discussing the continent and their own collection.

The museum has been closed for several years as it undergoes a complete renovation, both to its 120-year-old buildings and to its installations, which had their beginnings in Leopold II’s Congo Free State. The exhibits were considered dated, and too little context was given to the collection as colonial acquisitions.

The language recommendations are part of the ongoing efforts to realise Belgium’s role in the stereotyping of the Congo and, by extension, the African continent and its people. “I wanted the scientists to consider their vocabulary,” Bambi Ceuppens, an anthropologist at the museum, told De Standaard. “I have explained which terms are reprehensible in both of our national languages as well as in English.”

Some suggestions on the list are to use the term ‘house’ or ‘home’ rather than ‘hut’ and ‘rainforest’ rather than ‘jungle’. The Dutch word blank, furthermore, should be replaced by wit, or white.

Some words simply serve to make the African people seem primitive, others tend to minimise situations. Ceuppens points to the word ‘slave’, which she suggests we don’t use, instead referring to “‘people who are offered up as merchandise’. That’s a statement that doesn’t get by you so easily.”

The suggestions will also help staff who are currently busy arranging new exhibitions spaces. The museum is set to open this December following a closure of five years.

Photo courtesy Brussels Museums

Written by Lisa Bradshaw