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Brussels: Africa in your backyard

Belgian museum has artifacts from European colonial era

By JOSEPH GIORDONO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 26, 2007

Can a little bit of racism go a long way in teaching tolerance and history?

The Royal Museum for Central Africa, situated in a park on the outskirts of Brussels, seems to be betting that it can. And frankly, the museum does give a fascinating look at the colonial attitudes of Europe toward Africa.

Even if you’re there just to see some great pieces of African art, flora and fauna, the museum is well worth a visit.

But first, let me backtrack.

In the second half of the 19th century, as European nations raced to divide up the African continent, the Belgians took hold of what would later become the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At first, the area was called the Congo Free State, and was literally owned as a private holding by a group of European businessmen headed by Belgian King Leopold II. Created in the late 1880s, it provided rubber and other natural materials — a colony run by big businesses.

In 1897, Belgium hosted the World’s Fair and the museum was built as a showcase for business opportunities.

But as cruelties mounted and the atrocities associated with colonial rule elsewhere were widely publicized, pressure was put on the Belgian government to do something. In 1908, it took direct rule over the country, keeping it as a colony until 1960. By then, independence movements were sweeping through Africa, and the Congo was no different.

It’s this period that the museum tries to put into context.

As its Web site says, “the permanent exhibition still reflects the way Europe regarded Africa in the 1960s, despite a radically altered social context not only in Africa, but here as well.”

In other words: a bit paternalistic, a bit racist and a bit factually incorrect.

The museum’s history section is a work in progress, but it does have perhaps the most symbolic independence photo I’ve seen.

In 1960, when Belgian King Baudouin arrived to grant the Congo its independence, he rode from the airport standing in an open car. A nationalist sprang from the crowd, snatched the king’s sword — the symbol of colonial rule — from his belt and danced off, holding it aloft in triumph. A photographer was there to capture the scene.

But enough history. What’s there to see at the museum? A wealth of beautifully preserved, eye-catching pieces of African art. A somewhat giggle-inducing menagerie of stuffed, papier- mâché and plaster animals of Africa.

The temporary exhibits include a wonderful array of traditional African headdresses that will be on display until September. There are weapons, musical instruments, costumes and statuary. There are plenty of interactive displays on both history and art, and some things to keep the kids occupied. There’s also the “Leopardman,” which, well, has to be seen to be believed.

The gilded rotunda, which houses the ticket office and information desk, also has a set of colonial-era gold statues with such unabashed titles as “Belgium Brings Civilization to Congo.” That sculpture is of a white priest towering over a naked native.

Outside the museum is a lush green park with a pond, and on the day we visited, there were dozens of families and school- age kids lounging in the sun. Because a ticket for the museum allows re-entry, many of the visitors made a day of it, bringing a picnic and bouncing between the indoor exhibits and outdoor fun.


On the QT

Directions: If driving from Brussels: Take the Belliard Tunnel (N3) and continue on the Chaussée de Tervuren until you reach the “Quatres Bras” crossroads. Go toward Tervurenlaan; at the roundabout, turn left on Leuvensesteenweg to the museum; parking lot is opposite the museum. From Mons/SHAPE: Take the Brussels Ring (R0) to the Tervuren exit (N227), then turn left on the Tervurenlaan (N3). At the roundabout, turn left on Leuvensesteenweg to the museum. By public transportation: From Brussels’ central station, take the subway line 1B (toward Stockel) and stop at Montgomery. Then take Tram 44 to the final stop. The museum is a 300-yard walk.

Times: Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (including public holidays); 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, May Day and Christmas.

Costs: Tickets are 4 euros for adults (plus a surcharge for some of the temporary exhibits) and 1.50 euros for students; children under 12 get in free. Discounts for senior citizens and groups larger than 15 people.

Food: The museum’s Simba Cafeteria is quite nice and offers everything from simple baguettes to “authentic African lunches” from a menu that rotates every two weeks. You can sit inside or outside in the central courtyard.

Information: The museum has a Web site in French, Dutch and English, www.africamuseum.be. It also has a children’s site. Some exhibits in the museum are in French or Dutch only, but English guide materials and headsets that tell you about what you’re seeing are available. Staff members speak English.


A detail of the statue outside the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The statue is a somewhat disconcerting "tribute" to the animals and natives of the former Belgian Congo.
JOSEPH GIORDONO / S&S

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