AfricaMuseum: 120 years old and still young!

Benoit Dupont
26 November 2018
[INTERVIEW] On 9 December, the brand new AfricaMuseum will reopen its doors. It will unveil its Central African treasures to the public in a redesigned and renovated setting. But did you know that the AfricaMuseum is much more than a museum? Glo.be met Director-General Guido Gryseels, who is whetting our appetite.

 

The AfricaMuseum will reopen its doors to the public on 9 December, following a comprehensive renovation which has taken several years to complete. What is there to see in the new museum?

The new permanent exhibition has updated its content according to various contemporary issues: daily life, biodiversity, the diaspora, languages, music, and history. The scenography has been modified, while the original display cases, which are listed, have been retained. The museum building has been completely renovated, and the area open to the public has doubled in size to 11,000 square metres. The park surrounding the museum has also been enhanced, and is ideal for a pleasant stroll. The renovation of this remarkable complex has been a successful undertaking, and has aroused curiosity and interest throughout the world.

Visitors can learn a lot about Africa, and become enthusiasts of this wonderful continent. The AfricaMuseum is an exciting world for both young and old. The typical visitor comes to our museum three times in their life: once as a child with their parents, once as a parent with their children, and once as a grandparent with their grandchildren. African families will of course also be particularly interested in our collection.

Outside view of the museum from the renvovated inside
© AfricaMuseum

Our current goal is to stimulate a sense of global citizenship among children and young people. How can you take part?

The AfricaMuseum organises workshops for young people between the ages of 4 and 17 in various subjects: the colonial past, agriculture, biodiversity, music, and everyday life. Between 30,000 and 40,000 young people participate in these workshops every year. They are encouraged to understand the aspects and challenges of the colonisation and decolonisation of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, find out about the lives of children in Central Africa, and map out natural resources. They can even experience the sound of a small thumb piano or an arched harp.

We also have a joint programme with African diasporas: conferences, workshops, etc. And we work together to develop educational activities in other African museums.

The typical visitor comes to our museum three times in their life: once as a child with their parents, once as a parent with their children, and once as a grandparent with their grandchildren.

Guido Gryseels

The Museum for Central Africa has existed since the end of the 19th century. What role did it play during the colonial period?

The Museum was founded in 1898, 120 years ago! It was built under the reign of King Leopold II, and consequently had a dual role. Firstly, it was intended to portray a positive image of Belgium's colonial activities in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. It was a form of propaganda for colonialism, to win the support of the Belgian population. Secondly, the institution carried out scientific research activities to support colonial activities: there was a geology department, a division specialising in Bantu languages (to understand and translate them), a research centre on ethnographic collections, etc. Better understanding of the colonial context was essential in facilitating the work of the colonialists. The museum and research centre were consequently supports for the colonial activity.

 

For some people, development cooperation still has a neo-colonial ring to it. The relationship between "the one who gives and knows" and "the one who receives and learns" is still often present in people's minds. What is the position of the AfricaMuseum, and how is it trying to change this?                                                   

One of the objectives of the renovation is that people look at Africa in a new way. The permanent exhibition had not changed since the 1950s. A Belgian vision of the Congo, dating from before its independence, was still conveyed. Our institution was the last colonial museum in the world. It was high time to change that. The new permanent exhibition focuses on contemporary Africa, and no longer on colonial Africa. We took the opportunity to develop a new narrative about the colonial past, which was a difficult period in history. We have distanced ourselves from the idea of colonialism as a system of governance, and we have taken responsibility for the role that the museum played in disseminating a colonialist message. We are the first museum in the world which has taken this constructive approach. The colonial past stays in the memory, and is presented with a critical eye that continually evolves over time. We have many exchanges and discussions with African experts, and with the African diaspora. For example, in 2010 we organised an exhibition on the independence of the Congo seen through the eyes of the Congolese people.

Who is Guido Gryseels?

 

Guido Gryseels

 

 

A doctor of rural economics, Guido Gryseels worked for 8 years in Ethiopia as a researcher on local agricultural production systems, agricultural animal traction, and cow dairies. After 15 years at the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) as head of international agricultural research, Guido Gryseels became Director-General of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in 2001. The Minister at the time, who was in charge of the RMCA, entrusted him with the task of reforming the institution. Mission accomplished with the new AfricaMuseum!

The AfricaMuseum is more than just a museum. It presents itself as a world-class research centre for Central Africa. To this end, it also receives funds from the budget of the Belgian Development Cooperation. How much is this contribution, and what is it used for?

The AfricaMuseum carries out research activities, but also cooperation activities. The amount allocated by Belgian Development Cooperation is €3 million. It is used primarily to help partner institutions in Africa, finance the training of African scientists, and for awareness-raising activities among the Belgian public.

In terms of budget and staff, the museum itself only accounts for a quarter of the activities. The AfricaMuseum is first and foremost a scientific institution working in 20 African countries. 80 researchers work in the areas of geology, biology, anthropology and history. They study current and past societies, biodiversity and the structure and evolution of the Earth's crust in Africa. In addition, the AfricaMuseum is training 130 African scientists who are following courses in Belgium, in the areas of archive management, fish taxonomy, geological map development and the management of scientific collections. We train people in Belgium, but also in the South. In Rwanda, for example, we are helping to teach a master's degree in geology. Our interns also have the opportunity to develop a network through our institution. They meet Africans from regions other than their own: South-South relationships are forged and this is useful in their future professional careers.

Finally, 30 African scientists, doctoral students at a Belgian university, carry out research at the museum.

 

Since when has your institution officially contributed to development cooperation?

Formally, since 1998, under Reginald Moreels, Secretary of State for Cooperation, when a framework agreement for a partnership was signed, worth €1 million. The budget is now €3 million. Prior to 1998, cooperation was on an ad-hoc basis, for example to train geologists. Today, we are a veritable cooperation partner, with a strategic framework and synergies with other development actors (NGOs, scientific institutes, etc.). The Directorate General for Development Cooperation recently approved our strategic plan which will guide our cooperation projects for the next 5 years.

In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum in New York organised an exhibition on African art: half of the artefacts came from our museum in Tervuren. The Quai Branly in Paris organised an exhibition on art and Christianity in Africa: 75% of the artefacts came from here. Whenever an exhibition is organised on Central Africa somewhere around the world, we are involved.

Guido Gryseels

The AfricaMuseum owns scientific collections. Which ones?

We are the most important reference centre for Central Africa in the world. Our collections are vast: 10 million zoological species, 130,000 ethnographic artefacts, and 4 kilometres of historical archives. We take part in 25 to 30 exhibitions around the world every year, mainly by lending out items. In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum in New York organised an exhibition on African art: half of the artefacts came from our museum in Tervuren. The Quai Branly in Paris organised an exhibition on art and Christianity in Africa: 75% of the artefacts came from here. Whenever an exhibition is organised on Central Africa somewhere around the world, we are involved.

 

Do you also have research themes and collections from countries outside Africa?

Most of the collections come from Central Africa, but we also have collections from Oceania (ethnographic objects), and North and South America. We have either exchanged collections in the past, or researchers have brought us their own collections. Things have come from Brazil, for example, as we can guarantee optimal storage conditions. Collections are available for loans to other museums or for exhibitions.

 

Eléphant dans le musée
Elephant in the museum

 

 

Our collections are vast: 10 million zoological species, 130,000 ethnographic artefacts, and 4 kilometres of historical archives. We take part in 25 to 30 exhibitions around the world every year, mainly by lending out items.

 

Do you also work with African museums or research institutions? Through joint exhibitions or exchanges of collections? Do you also help set up and develop museums in Africa?

We work in 20 countries, with 200 scientific institutions and universities, in the form of joint research. Biologists mainly work in Tanzania, Guinea, and Kenya; linguists generally work in Mozambique; anthropologists in the Congo; geologists in Rwanda and the Congo. Our expertise is recognised for the quality of our research, publications and training. To give an example: the early warning systems for natural disasters (erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, etc.).

We have agreements with various museums. For example, the Museum of black civilizations in Senegal, to which we lend items. We work together with museums in Lubumbashi, Kinshasa and Rwanda, for training and capacity development. South Korea has funded construction of a new national museum in Kinshasa. Belgium can make its contribution by loaning artefacts on a long-term basis, for example.

 

What about the issue of returning artefacts to Africa, from where they came?

There is real demand from African countries for easier access to our collections. We support this! This African cultural heritage must be more accessible in Africa itself. Belgium actively contributes to this debate. Among the solutions envisaged, there is not only a formal restitution of artefacts, but also long-term loans, travelling exhibitions, co-decision making as regards collections, the digitisation of cultural heritage (photos, films, archives, etc.).

Belgium is the first former colonial power to agree to digitise all of Rwanda's archives in Belgium, and put them online. This was a decision by our government, which will facilitate access to this mine of information. In addition, with a view to openness and transparency, we are developing digital inventories of our collections. This will ensure that all interested parties can discover the complete collection, as well as the origin of artefacts which were acquired as a result of loans, or scientific or military expeditions.

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