One hundred and twenty years after its foundation, and after five years of renovations, the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren reopens this weekend with a look at modern Africa and a critical attitude towards Belgium's colonial past.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa, now known as the AfricaMuseum, was given a thorough makeover. The big challenge was to present a contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa in a building which had been designed as a colonial museum.
The building, listed since 1978, was renovated and restored for €66.5 million in keeping with the original plans which date back to the end of 19th century, whilst at the same time incorporating modern techniques.
The new visitor centre of the AfricaMuseum
Access to the museum is now through the new visitor centre that houses a ticket office, shop and restaurant. The centre connects to the historic building through a 100m underground passageway.
The visitor heads into the basement of the former edifice, before resurfacing on the ground floor where the permanent exhibition is housed.
Before the renovation, the permanent exhibition was outdated and its presentation not very critical of the colonial image. A new scenography was urgently required. The total surface area accessible to the public has increased from 6,000 to 11,000m
The introduction of contemporary art was an important element in the renovation process. The Congolese artist, Aimé Mpané was attributed the large rotunda project and created the work New breath, or Burgeoning
Congo, a large sculpture which enters into dialogue with the statues of colonial origin.
Aimé Mpane, New breath, or Burgeoning, Congo, Nivelles, 2017, wood, bronze © AfricaMuseum
The revamped museum focuses on contemporary Africa, with exhibitions about the continent’s biodiversity, music and languages. But the AfricaMuseum has also finally decolonised itself. Where the museum used to present art and people from Central Africa without any noteworthy context, this weekend it will be different. Throughout the renewed exhibition, a critical look will be taken at the colonial past as an immoral system. The museum firmly rejects colonialism as a governance model.
View of the Introduction Gallery: A Museum in motion © AfricaMuseum, Jo Van de Vijver
Even before the museum opens its doors again, however, there is already a discussion between those who regret that the museum's gaze is not critical enough and those who think that the museum is too decolonised.
The discussion about Belgium's colonial past (with Congo first as the private property of King Leopold II, later as a colony of Belgium) has been much stronger in recent years than before. In any case, it remains a sensitive subject. It is therefore no surprise that King Philippe has decided not to attend the solemn opening.