The Africa Museum in Tervuren has been superbly renovated and now gives a contemporary and relevant view of Central Africa. Read this short guide before you visit and it will help you make the most of your time there.
When our children were young we would sometimes take them to the Africa Museum in Tervuren. It was the most old-fashioned museum I had ever visited. A real 19th century museum. It presented the colonial view of Africa, from a very white Belgian perspective. It was remarkably quiet about King Leopold II, who became rich as a result of an appalling slave labour regime in the Congo Free State.
The rooms were gloomy, so were the staff, and the museum cafÃ© gave the impression it would be pushed to find some hot water, far less some decent refreshments for the weary museum-goer.
Thanks to a total overhaul, which took five years and cost 74 million euros, the Africa Museum in Tervuren is now a bright, new and wonderfully engaging 21st century museum. It includes new infrastructure, a new, spacious and welcoming reception, a large and open restaurant, and a well-stocked museum shop.
But there’s been an even more significant change …
A new storyline!
The Africa Museum in Tervuren now tells the truth of the past, and paints a picture of modern-day Africa. Instead of a very colonial view of the continent, it presents the shared histories of Belgium and the Central African countries, and deals with contemporary themes such as daily life, language, music, biodiversity and climate change. It even allows the pendulum to swing the other way from colonialism to critically describe the negative consequences of Belgium’s involvement in Africa. And all this not from the point of view of the Belgians, but from the African people themselves. It really is refreshing.
And its view on colonialism?
The Africa Museum deals with this topic head-on. You come away fully aware that colonialism as a form of administration is immoral and unethical, in some aspects deeply racist, and particularly in the early years, extremely violent. Yes, the colonists brought a degree of healthcare and established schools and hospitals, but the main drive of the exploitation of the Congo was for profit. The museum thus distances itself from King Leopold II’s actions in the Congo.
What’s to see in the Africa Museum in Tervuren?
The museum is divided into a number of themed zones, which are very briefly introduced here.
This blog post is meant to be an appetizer, not a full description. You need to go there yourself to see its full splendour. The photos are not mine as when I visited it was crowded and photography was difficult. (All photos Â© RMCA, Tervuren, photographer: Jo Van de Vijver).
The welcome pavilion
This is a completely new building, fresh, white and open with large glass windows overlooking the park. You access the main museum building through a 100-metre underground gallery which houses temporary exhibitions.
By centralizing all non-museum functions in this new building, the floor area open to the public in the actual museum building is almost double (11,000 square metres) what it used to be.
Whereas the old museum gave the impression that Africa’s history started with the arrival of the white man, the new one takes us back to Africa as the cradle of humankind. And what could illustrate that better than the tooth of a humanoid found in Congo that is at least two million years old?
We see stone objects from the Stone Age, and early pottery, iron and copper objects. A wooden carving of an animal head (aardvark) is the oldest known wooden sculpture found in Central Africa, incredibly dating back to the 8th or 9th century CE.
Colonial History and Independence
This zone focuses on Central Africa as a key cog in global trade going back to the late 15th century. The arrival of slavery and first the ivory trade and then the rubber trade of course brought untold horrors, and these are not avoided. Space is devoted to the colonial ambitions and cruelty of King Leopold II, with conquest of the territory giving rise to all kinds of violence. Events leading up to the annexation of Congo in 1908 by Belgium are covered. Also described are some of the events in post-colonial Burundi and Rwanda, with newspaper clippings highlighting the various tragedies occurring in those countries.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Birth and marriage customs in central Africa are presented, including mother and child figurines that used to have a protective function. Testimonials explain the meaning of the dowry. One display case portrays objects used in fortune telling and healing rituals. I found the evolution of grave decorations through the years moving.
Another strong point are the videos of people from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi describing their own personal stories on life, death and everything in between.
Languages and Music
Here the vast diversity of this continent really comes to the fore. I didn’t realize that more than a quarter of the world’s languages are spoken in Central Africa! There are plenty of maps, paintings, sound fragments and videos to explore, plus interactive displays that explain the working of some Bantu languages. For example, I found it fascinating to discover how melody can be used within language to alter the meaning of certain words and sentences. Ancient Swahili manuscripts are on display along with proverbs on old wax prints.
The importance of storytelling in African culture is highlighted through audio and video, while newspaper cuttings portray more contemporary stories. I loved the idea of a “proverb string”: objects strung out in a village square that could be added to and discussed, as a means of exchanging information and stories.
I could see that this gallery was particularly interesting to children, especially as they could beat out their own rhythms on an old tribal drum.
Landscapes and Biodiversity
Here we see the vital interplay of agriculture, fishery and nature protection, not only in Africa but globally. As one caption puts it: “Everything that happens in Africa has global consequences as a result of globalisation.” The huge size and diversity of Central Africa mean we still don’t have a full listing of every species of plant and animal that live there. New species are constantly being discovered!
I was particularly interested to see if all the old stuffed animals from the old museum were still on display, as they were invariably described as “trophies.” Some of them are but have been spruced up somewhat. But it’s made clear that they are displayed as a typical example of an old-style natural history museum. A good example here is the crocodile room.
Elsewhere though, animals are situated within their contemporary position, and how it’s vital to preserve the delicate balance between nature and human activities. I was encouraged to see climate change as an important theme of the museum.
Here’s something I didn’t know: Africa has glaciers! Photos show a 1932 Belgian expedition to them, and sadly how they have shrunk since then. This is having dire consequences for the people who live in the foothills and for the unique alpine plants and animals.
The Resource Paradox
How can such a naturally rich area such as Central Africa be so poor? This is the paradox of poverty amid plenty. We learn how Congo is rich in minerals such as copper and cobalt (greatly in demand in the production of batteries for electric vehicles).
At the same time, mining and raw material extraction has consequences for the environment and in terms of working conditions. And who’s benefitting the most from the sale of these valuable resources?
Four interactive installations, each in one of the building’s corner rooms, focus on additional themes. So there is the Music Corner (the contemporary African music scene), Studio 6+ (activities geared towards children), Imagery (photos from the colonial era along with commentaries to better understand them), and TaxoLab (a fascinating zoological research laboratory).
So much more!
This is a whistle-stop tour of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, hopefully to inspire you to visit it yourself. There is much more on display, including a lot of ancient and contemporary art that I have not covered here at all. Also worthwhile pointing out is that the Africa Museum regards its role in society as important and wishes to make a substantial contribution to creating an inclusive, fair, and sustainable world, founded on solidarity. It seeks to do this through its collections, its scientific research and its varied activities.
Opening times and prices
The museum is open from Tuesday to Friday: 11 a.m. — 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. — 6 p.m. It’s closed on Mondays, January 1st, May 1st and December 25th.
Normal admission costs 12â‚¬, but is free for anyone aged under 18, which is a great initiative. To avoid queues at the ticket counters, you can purchase your ticket online.
Enjoy your visit. Let me know how you get on.
Africa has several unique assets, in terms of human capital, biodiversity, geodiversity, entrepreneurship and artistic expression. In 30 years from now, 40% of the world’s population will live in Africa. Africa is the continent of the future!”Guido Gryseels, Director General, Africa Museum
Excellent post, Denzil. I got to sense the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Thanks Pat. At least all aspects are now covered truthfully.
This looks like a fantastic museum Denzil! Also, what a beeeeautiful building!
You’re right Josy. One of the consequences of King Leopold II’s greed was his great wealth, some of which he ploughed into beautiful buildings such as this one.
Great post about a fascinating topic by an excellent blogger! Thank you!
Thanks for the compliment.
I never visited the ‘old version’. But I need to see the new one…
Look forward to hearing your thoughts on it Timothy!
This is one of my favorite of your posts, Denzil, and that’s saying a lot as I always enjoy traveling to Belgium with you. I was an art teacher for decades and taught much ethnic art to my students, making them aware and respectful of other cultures. The ability to “touch” other people and histories is one of the biggest benefits of a good art curriculum. This museum, beautiful building BTW, is doing a great service to the history and people of Africa and Belgium with its refocus on truth. If I ever get to Belgium, this is a place I’ll visit for sure. Thank you so much for this one.
Thanks Sharon. I’ll send you the art catalog by email. I think you will enjoy it.
Congratulations to the museum staff for bringing this collection into the 21st century in such a sensitive way. I like that they’ve acknowledged the past without making it the major focus.
That’s a good way to describe it Carol
Just a visit to see the building would be a treat. Colonialism is still a big issue in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Not sure if all the payouts and agreements will ever make everyone happy down here. Though we don’t have riots or such it is still a very political hot potato! Back to your subject you wrote about – If we had the chance that museum would be on our list of places to visit!
When I read the news about the reopening of this museum and its different approach of seeing Africa, right away it became one of the places I really want to visit in Belgium should I get the chance to return to the country. I’ve never been to Africa myself, but I’m so fascinated by its cultural diversity, long history, and heritage sites. Thanks for writing about this museum!
Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you will be able to visit the museum one day.
Sounds like a huge improvement compared to the ‘old’ Africa Museum! I think this part of Belgian history is still kind of ignored in history classes, so I’m definitely going to visit it again sometime soon.
Look forward to reading your blog post on it!
Impressive on many levels and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the presentation and contextualisation of artefacts. They seem to have achieved a good balance of old and contemporary, acknowledging the impact of colonialization without making our more enlightened generations feel too uncomfortable. You conveyed your impressions and reactions with your usual style and clearly enjoyed the outing, thanks for the well-guided tour!
Thanks Theresa. By all accounts the new look museum is proving popular.
Gosh Denzil, I just discovered your site and have been combing through it. I love it. Thanks for doing this.
Looks like I will have so so many more trips to make in my pretty little Belgium. 😉
I have visited the Africa Museum a number of times. The way it used to be was… kinda like a tribute to Leopold and his colonial rule. They have improved it after the outcry of the book “Kind Leopold’s Ghost”, but it is still far from actually doing justice to acknowledging the past, the millions of people killed and the horrific cruelty. If you go through the museum there is actually only one small part that talks about this. My partner walked right by it and didn’t even notice, and I barely did. Considering that our colonial past is only now (2020) starting to be mandatory in schools as part of history, the vast majority of the country (including my own parents) are mostly in denial of what happened. This museum had the job of doing a proper representation of that history and they failed quite spectacularly.
What they DID do right, and quite wonderfully – is show off artifacts and species from then and now, and yes the building is absolutely absolutely amazing. By all means – it is an absolute top 10 of things to visit in Belgium. But…. you must must remember that most of it was built on the backs of very unfortunate souls from our former colony.