In a word, no. They shut the place down for five years and spent $84 million, to redesign the displays, and what they reopened still looks and feels incredibly colonial. That’s not an architectural complaint, only that the museum cannot escape what it has been for well over a century. Most of the 180,000 art objects there were either stolen or bought under terms of implicit coercion. There is an Africa Gallery covering the crimes of King Leopold in the Congo, but it is easy enough to be transfixed by the art and not really take it in. How about a full room near the entrance devoted to the anti-imperialist E.D. Morel? And while there are now more art works from the post-colonial period, there is no room devoted to the often very impressive art worlds of Central Africa today. Having more African people talk on screens was nice, but it doesn’t do the trick. The colonial still seems glorious, and the post-colonial mediocre.
Despite DRC demands, I do understand that the repatriation of the objects themselves would not be wise, given the current state of the DRC. In 1976-1982, 114 objects were in fact restituted, but most of them ended up stolen (NYT). For me preserving the art comes first, and furthermore the current DRC government is hardly a legitimate spokesperson for the historic civilizations of the region. But might the museum at least have presented the issue in some morally conscious manner?
Before you walk into the museum proper, there is a room devoted to all the sculptures and displays now considered too colonial or too racist for the current museum. Of course this draws more attention to them, and furthermore the dividing lines are by no means always clear. That said, there is a double irony, namely that some of the items in this room are sufficiently obnoxious that their display represents a better apology than any part of what is intended as apology.
This is still all much better than the past, when at one time a human zoo of 267 enslaved Congolese was put on display here, in fact that was the inaugural exhibit in 1897. At least there is now a memorial to those of the enslaved who died of influenza. And the plaque “Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo” has been taken down. Yet this:
The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.
Oh, and there are colonial statues built into the walls:
One was of black children clinging to a white missionary. Another was of a topless African woman dancing.
They cannot be removed because of cultural heritage laws in Belgium.
The animal displays also no longer seem of our time, more about size and stuffing and the conquest of nature rather than with much of a notion of environmental or biodiversity or animal welfare awareness.
It is nonetheless a spectacular museum, the best chronicle anywhere for the Central African artistic achievement by an order of magnitude, and one of the best and most interesting places in Europe right now. It is worth the rather convoluted one hour trip you must take from Brussels, or if you are visiting Waterloo it isn’t far away at all. For all its flaws (or in part because of them?), go if you can.
The art aside, the other lesson is imperialism and colonialism cast a longer shadow than you might at first think. The realities of cultural constipation remain underrated.