Generations of Belgian schoolchildren have tramped past glass-topped cases of insects at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, a few miles southeast of Brussels. Now this moldering dowager, created by Belgian King Leopold II around the turn of the last century, is one of the most fascinating museums in Europe, with a controversial new exhibition on the Belgian colonial era in Congo.
A vast repository of cultural and scientific specimens, it has long been considered by scholars the premiere collection of Central Africana in the world, easily surpassing that at the British Museum in London and the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian in Washington. But it isn’t the Royal Museum’s 6 million insects or 8,000 musical instruments that make it compelling. Rather, it’s the way the institution has become a flashpoint for the controversy over Belgium’s role in the colonizing of Central Africa from about 1885 to 1960.
Frozen in time, paint peeling off the walls, brandishing the banner of the forward march of European civilization, the museum was -- and, in some ways, still is -- a study in political incorrectness. When I first visited it two years ago, I was intrigued and appalled by gilded bronze statues in the foyer depicting valiant Mother Belgium eradicating savagery in Africa. A “Gallery of Remembrance” honored Belgian colonists who gave their lives there, with no mention of the millions of indigenous people who died during the often brutal colonial period.
Consummate works of African art were displayed chiefly as anthropological artifacts. “The people of the Congo [were depicted] on the same level as fauna and flora,” Belgian historian Ludo de Witte, author of “The Assassination of Lumumba,” said in a telephone interview.
In 2001, the museum hired Guido Gryseels as its new director. He plans to remake the museum into a digitally connected research foundation by 2010, funding scientific expeditions and supporting African cultural institutions.
Gryseels has responded to the controversy over Belgium’s role in Central Africa with “Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era,” an exhibit scheduled to last until Oct. 9. “We cannot avoid answering these questions,” he told the Guardian of London in a 2002 story. “Everyone raises [the issue] all the time, and we don’t know what to say.”
Criticism of Belgium’s strong-arm extraction of profit from its Central African colony, the private domain of King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908, began around the turn of the last century. Humanitarians, including crusading journalist Edmund Morel of Britain, began to report on forced labor and summary executions of natives. Then came publication of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness,” based on the author’s stint in Congo in 1890.
Mounting criticism, especially of the king’s lucrative rubber-collecting enterprise, which depended on slave labor, forced Leopold II to relinquish personal proprietorship of Congo. In 1908 it became a colony of the Belgian state, and forced labor was officially abolished. After that, Belgians -- inspired by government public relations campaigns and school field trips to the museum -- came to accept the notion that Congo was a model colony. This misapprehension endured even after Congo gained independence in 1960.
The controversy reignited in 1999 with the publication of “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” by American writer Adam Hochschild. In it, the author blamed the Belgian colonial system for, among other things, a population loss of 10 million in Congo because of forced labor, famine, disease and the diminished birth rate resulting from those conditions.
The museum has come to represent the worst abuses of Belgian colonialism in Africa, though in touring Brussels, visitors can see other vestiges of Congo’s plundering. Ivory, rubber, copper, diamonds and gold from the Central African nation, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, funded the construction of the broad Parc du Cinquantenaire and the colossal neoclassic Palais de Justice. And everywhere in the Belgian capital there are statues of King Leopold II, whose stated purpose in Congo was to “bring civilization to the only part of our globe it hasn’t yet penetrated.” Along the way, the king, who died in 1909, reaped a profit from the colony of an estimated $1.1 billion.
As with all complex matters, a little historical background enriches the experience of visiting the new exhibition. Belgium is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Since its founding in 1830, it has become an influential force in Europe, the seat of the European Union and more ethnically mixed. Brussels has an African neighborhood near the Porte de Namur, galleries full of African art and a lively African immigrant population.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, not all has been calm; in the civil war after the 1997 departure of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, 3.3 million people have been killed. Observers from humanitarian organizations fear hostilities are starting again, with incursions from neighboring states such as Rwanda.
With these underpinnings, “Memory of Congo” is a big, intense exhibition. It tells the story of Belgium’s colonial venture, from the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, when European leaders carved colonies from the map of Africa and Leopold II took possession of what he called the “Congo Free State,” to Mobutu’s misrule, which coexisted with an effort to turn the ailing former colony into the authentically African state of Zaire.
Along the way, the exhibition highlights the benefits of colonial rule -- when Congo became independent, it enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Africa -- and abuses, such as forced labor, the political disenfranchisement of the Congolese people and the population decline, which some observers have compared to the Holocaust.
With no reliable statistics, population loss in Congo during the colonial phase is a deeply sensitive issue. The exhibition contests high estimates such as Hochschild’s 10 million, suggesting instead a 20% decline, or about 4 million people.
In an e-mail interview, Hochschild, who hasn’t yet seen the exhibition, objected to the 20% figure. “For the museum to say, as it does in the selection of texts [a handout that accompanies the exhibition], that ‘a scientific consensus has been reached’ is fraudulent,” he wrote. “There is no consensus on this point at all, and few, if any, historians outside of Belgium would accept such a figure.”
Arguing over demographic decline in colonial Congo strikes Belgian-born Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, as futile. “I don’t think [the dispute is] all that important,” said Vansina, who contributed an essay to the book that accompanies the exhibition. But, as he told me in a telephone interview, he was astounded by this assertion in the selection of texts: “The context of Congo’s atrocities is one of a period of extreme violence in world history. We know that, within such contexts, the line between human dignity and barbarity is frequently crossed. History also tells us that this line is never crossed in one direction only.”
“The last sentence is really too much for me,” said Vansina. “They are blaming the victim.
“This exhibition seems to have succeeded in, at least, convincing many people that there were abuses, which only a few months ago few Belgians would admit. But in an ideal world, [the message] has not sufficiently penetrated.”
Visitors must decide how fairly the exhibition examines the question of abuses in Congo and, by extension, how the museum has set about becoming a place of investigation, as opposed to a symbol of Belgian colonialism. Therein lies its compelling interest and challenge.
Royal Museum for Central Africa, 13 Leuvensesteenweg, Tervuren 3080, Belgium; 011-32-2-769-5211, www.africamuseum.be.
Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at www.latimes.com/susanspano.