AfricaMuseum in Tervuren showcases the culture and natural history of central Africa
The AfricaMuseum at Tervuren (Flemish Brabant) is dedicated to the cultures of central Africa and the natural history of the area. Congo, a former Belgian colony, is its main focus, but its sphere of interest, especially in biological research extends to the whole Congo basin in central Africa and even stretches as far as East and West Africa.
The AfricaMuseum at Tervuren (Flemish Brabant) is dedicated to the cultures of central Africa and the natural history of the area. Congo, a former Belgian colony, is its main focus, but its sphere of interest, especially in biological research extends to the whole Congo basin in central Africa and even stretches as far as East and West AfricThe museum was originally built to showcase King Leopold II’s Congo Free State in the Brussels international exhibition of 1897. In 1885 an international conference in Berlin recognised the Congo Free State as King Leopold’s private colony. But Belgium was forced to annex the Free State as the Belgian Congo in 1908 after an international outcry over the treatment of local people in the rubber, ivory and mineral industries under King Leopold’s colonial administration.
In 1897 the ‘colonial’ section of the Brussels International Exposition was staged in the Africa Palace at Tervuren. Stuffed animals, geological samples, Congolese artefacts and art filled the halls. Outside an African village was recreated with Congolese people staying there during the daytime. Seven of these ‘human exhibits’ died during their time at the village the AfricaMuseum website relates.
King Leopold II saw the museum primarily as a propaganda tool intended to encourage support from the people of Belgium for his personal enterprise and to drum up investments. A year later what was initially planned as a temporary exhibition became a permanent fixture dedicated to Congo. From the outset it took on a dual role serving as a museum and a scientific research institute.
The Africa Palace soon turned out to be too small and with the help of Charles Girault, the architect of the Petit Palais in Paris, King Leopold set about an ambitious construction programme. Plans envisaged a new Museum of the Congo with an international school, a conference centre, a railway station, Chinese pavilions and a sports centre on a completely new site. The projects were funded by profits from King Leopold’s royal estate in Congo. King Albert I, King Leopold’s successor, inaugurated the museum in 1908.
Over the years the museum has taken several names recognising changing times. When Congo became independent in 1960 it became the Royal Museum for Central Africa adopting the name AfricaMuseum following the completion of renovation work in 2018.
By 2018 the building was in urgent need of renovation. Architects and museum managers faced the challenge of presenting a contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa in a building designed as a colonial museum. Temporary Association Stéphane Beel Architecten (TV SBA) was entrusted with the work of renovating the listed building in accordance with the late 19th century plans, while integrating modern techniques.
The renovated museum includes a new visitors’ centre, shop, restaurant and picknick area. The basement houses an introductory exhibition on the museum itself. The ground floor has been divided into five areas each dedicated to a theme of their own. The area of the museum accessible to the general public increased from 6,000 square metres to 11,000 square metres.
Today museum galleries also include displays of contemporary art: artists are invited to use the existing collections, to rediscover and interpret them. Ahead of its reopening after five years of renovation work the museum also launched a competition for African artists or artists with African roots to create a work of art that could offset colonial statues. Congo’s Aimé Mpane was chosen to create Nouveau souffle ou le Congo bourgeonnant (New Breath or Budding Congo). It’s a monumental openwork wooden statue that stands in the museum’s grand rotunda.