From the late 19th century to 1960, thousands of works of art, including wooden statues, ivory elephant masks, manuscripts, and musical instruments, were likely taken by Belgian and other European collectors, scientists, explorers, and soldiers.
Following a 66 million euro ($ 78 million) overhaul of the Africa Museum to take a more critical look at Belgium’s colonial past, the government is ready to comply with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s restitution requests.
“The approach is very simple: everything that was acquired through illegitimate means, through theft, through violence, through looting, must be returned,” Belgian Deputy Minister Thomas Dermine told Reuters. “It doesn’t belong to us.”
Millions of Congolese are estimated to have died since the late 19th century, when the Congo was first a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II, before becoming a colony of the Belgian state.
Belgium will transfer legal ownership of the artifacts to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But it will not immediately send works of art to the country from the museum in Tervuren, outside Brussels, unless specifically requested by authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That’s in part because the museum, which has proven popular since its renovation and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic, wants to keep the artifacts on display. One option is to pay a loan fee to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Belgium says the Congolese authorities are aware of the larger audience in Belgium compared to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the United Nations. It has few cultural centers or storage facilities.
“The museum believes that it will be able to cooperate with the Congolese authorities, as is common among international institutions, to keep the objects in Belgium through loan agreements,” said museum director Guido Gryseels.
The museum also has a large number of artifacts whose provenance is unclear. He hopes to use a team of scientists and experts over the next five years to identify them and separate those that were legally acquired by the museum.
“In five years with a lot of resources we can do a lot, but it could be work for the next 10 to 20 years to be absolutely sure of all the objects that we have, that we know the precise circumstances in which they were acquired,” said Gryseels.
Placide Mumbembele Sanger, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kinshasa who works at the Tervuren museum, said the process was straightforward.
“These are objects that go back to their natural context, so I don’t see why we should ask so many questions,” he said. “It’s like you go out and someone steals your wallet and the person asks you whether or not you are ready to get it back.”