The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels is scheduled to reopen in December of 2018 after a five-year renovation. The intention of the revamp was to transform its message from one claiming that King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908) was a time and place of social and economic progress for Congo, to one that gives a more balanced interpretation, perhaps shedding light on recent assertions that Leopold’s enterprise was a slave state, resulting in the deaths of thousands, perhaps millions of Congolese.
Other twentieth-century mass killings such as the Cambodian, Rwandan, Bosnian, Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry, and Armenian genocides have been recognized and memorialized, but barely a whisper has been uttered regarding the atrocities committed in Congo between 1885-1908. Why the disinterest and apathy? Is it because the atrocities in Leopold’s Congo Free State were committed against people who were African and black, while the perpetrators were European and white? In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu for genocide while mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba received praise in the West. Yes, the Tribunal did the right thing, and Western leaders were pleased. But it is also possible that Akayesu’s conviction was so easily lauded by Western governments because ultimately a genocide inflicted upon black Africans by other black Africans is not a threat to the still predominant Western historical perspective and current power structures. In reality, the Rwandan genocide actually kept alive the Western colonial narrative that Africans are uncivilized and in need of Western-sponsored civilizing. On the other hand, the atrocities committed in Congo by a Western European nation do not fit so neatly into certain Western historical accounts, nor the collective Western European consciousness. More specifically, the recognition of atrocities committed in Congo between 1885-1908 would not only upset the historical narrative of Belgium itself, it might also call for a much more critical review of the entire Western European colonial enterprise that catapulted various Western European nations, as well as the United States, to economic and sometimes military super-power status.
A key figure in regard to what transpired in the Congo Free State is the above-mentioned Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, constructed in 1897 with profits made from the sale of Congolese rubber. Even as Congo experienced the continued theft of its resources and extreme poverty in the years following its independence from Belgium in 1960, the museum’s purpose was, and remained until 2013, to be a monument of the good works that Belgium performed in Congo. This perspective was only recently challenged, thanks in part to Adam Hochschild's 1999 book, "King Leopold's Ghost.”
Soon after the release of Hochschild’s book, the museum's director, Guido Gryseels, set out to update the museum’s message that so easily glossed over the already well-documented maimings and deaths committed against the Congolese between 1885 and 1908. What resulted was an exhibit entitled "Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era", which opened in 2005. As it turned out, the intention of the “Memory of Congo” exhibit was not to come clean in regard to the Leopold-era excesses, but rather to illustrate Belgium's positive influence in Congo in the form of medicine, agriculture, education, railroads, mining, and Christianity. The charge of genocide was vehemently denied. In fact, one wall in the exhibit literally posed the question to all who entered: "Genocide in the Congo?" The exhibit argued that Hochschild’s estimate of 10 million dead Congolese could not be confirmed because reliable figures do not exist in regard to Congolese population numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In proceeding years, the Royal Museum for Central Africa remained under heavy scrutiny, resulting in its closure in 2013 in order to allow for yet another renovation and socio-historical makeover in order to offer a more critical view of such a dark and controversial piece of history. As mentioned, the museum will be reopening in December of 2018 with a “new story” and a “new narrative” according to Guido Gryseels.
Even if the Royal Museum for Central Africa exceeds all expectations in regard to illuminating Leopold’s slave and terror state, as well as the millions of Congolese deaths it incurred, it will not be enough. After all, it is not a genocide museum, or even a memorial, but rather an educational museum. That said, and all previous attempts and debate to label what transpired in Congo between 1885-1908 aside, there needs to be an accounting and recognition, not just in Belgium, but in the international community, that in Leopold II’s Congo Free State untold numbers of Congolese were shot, maimed, tortured, raped, starved, enslaved, and worked to death, resulting in millions of Congolese deaths. This is not something that should be left to a museum, much less one whose message has changed very little since 1897.