Belgium's controversial Africa Museum reopens after refurbishment

Belgium's Africa Museum, which has faced criticism in the past for an uncritical depiction of the country's sometimes brutal colonial past, reopened on Saturday after a five-year restoration.

The museum, situated in the Tervuren Palace outside Brussels, was founded on the orders of King Leopold II to house artifacts collected in the Congo Free State, a territory established under his personal rule that included regions now in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Leopold's governance of the region in the 1880s was characterized by a savage exploitation that left up to 10 million people dead from overwork, violence and disease. Many Belgians today are unaware of this dark colonial past, which has been immortalized, among other things, in Joseph Conrad's famous novella of 1899, "Heart of Darkness."

The Belgian museum now has an area of 11,000 square meters (118,403 square feet) and the renovation costs are thought to have run to more than €65 million ($74 million).

It includes rooms covering the colonial history of Congo, which was under Belgian rule till 1960.

Restitution debate

The museum has reopened amid a renewed debate in Europe about whether items taken from former colonies should be returned to the countries of their origin. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that African treasures housed in European museums should in principle be returned.

Director Guido Gryseels says he can understand calls for artifacts to be returned to Africa.

"Obviously, it's their history, it's their culture, it's their identity. We're willing to consider claims for restitution, but obviously there's a lot more discussion to be done," he said.

At the same time, the museum renovations meant that it now presented a contemporary view of Africa, he said.

Read more: Nazi-looted art: Germany failing 'moral obligation' to return stolen objects

Experts' concern

The museum's curator, Bambi Ceuppens, also praised the museum's new face, saying the permanent collection was no longer "an exhibition of dead objects in an Africa without history and without human beings."

Some European experts have expressed concern that some of the African countries calling for the restitution of artifacts lack the premises necessary to properly house them.

However, Senegal on Thursday opened one of a series of museums on the continent that could one day be recipients of returned artifacts looted during the colonial era. The Museum of Black Civilizations in the capital, Dakar, has room for some 18,000 items and already houses one of Africa's largest art collections.

tj/jlw (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

At 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of news and features. You can sign up to receive it here.