Belgium has announced plans to return artworks stolen from Congo during its colonial rule, as part of its efforts to confront its brutal past. The decision marks the first time that items will be returned to Congolese ownership in a systematic way, without waiting for requests.
The restitution process will involve the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, which holds about 85,000 items from Congo, a former Belgian colony. The museum, which was once a celebration of the country’s colonial rule, has undergone a €75m revamp and “decolonisation” process to take a more critical view of Belgium’s colonial history.
According to the museum’s director, Guido Gryseels, between 1,500 and 2,000 works were acquired in “an illegitimate manner”, such as through force, violence, pillaging or theft. These include statues, masks, musical instruments and weapons that were likely taken by Belgian and other European collectors, scientists, explorers and soldiers between 1885 and 1960.
Belgium will transfer legal ownership of these artefacts to Congo, but it will not immediately ship them to the country unless they are specifically requested by Congolese authorities. That is partly because the museum wants to keep the artefacts on display and to cooperate with Congo through loan agreements. It is also because Congo lacks adequate cultural centers or storage facilities to preserve and exhibit the artworks.
The museum also has a huge number of artefacts whose provenance is unclear. It hopes to use a team of scientists and experts over the next five years to identify them and to separate those that were acquired legally by the museum.
The restitution of looted objects from former colonies in Africa is an essential component of post-colonial reparation. The move by Belgium follows similar initiatives by France and Germany, which have also pledged to return artworks to their countries of origin.
The issue has become a sore point between Belgium and Congo, which has stepped up demands for the return of stolen artefacts in recent years. In 2019, the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, said looted works had to be returned in an “organised way” at the inauguration of a national museum in Kinshasa.
Belgium’s junior minister for science policy, Thomas Dermine, said: “Everything that has been acquired through illegitimate means by our ancestors, by our grandparents, great-grandparents, do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop.”
Source: Conversation with Bing, 06/07/2023
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