Inside Brussels’ Newly-Renovated Africa Museum

“It was the curse of Leopold,” Siska Genbrugge, an alumna of the Fulbright Program in Belgium and Coordinator of Conservation at Brussels’ Africa Museum, explained to staff members of the Fulbright Commission as she recounted the day before the re-opening of the notorious museum.

Less than twenty-four hours before the Africa Museum’s reopening following five years of renovations, Genbrugge had sat on the steps above the foot of water that had flooded the main entrance hall to the museum. A massive sprinkler tank had ruptured, and water was still shooting out of cracks in the wall. Ironically, the artifact which stood the most chance of being submerged was a massive black canoe, hand-hewn from the 100-foot trunk of a Sepo tree, which seemed like a ghost ship as it hovered a foot above the water.

Genbrugge had joined the museum after its 2014 closing and played a major part in the immense task of re-creating the ‘last colonial museum in the world’ as a space which could educate and help the Belgian public face its colonial history. “It’s a work in progress,” Genbrugge explained. “We can’t change the past, but we can try to make a difference now.”

Image courtesy of the Africa Museum.

Shockingly it was only in 2005 that the museum featured its first exhibit questioning the benefits of colonialism for the population of Belgian Congo and until the 2014 renovation, the halls of the museum were lined with sexualized and animalized statues of African people and artifacts bearing descriptions that falsely said they were given by Congolese subjects “in gratitude” to their Belgian rulers. In this decade, the museum was a minstrel show reified as scholarly fact.

Preserved by Belgian heritage laws, the main building of the museum is still the same as that which housed these repulsive exhibits: colonial statues and symbols are built into its very walls. Siska noted that while “we can change the people and the exhibits, we can’t change the structure.” It is perhaps an apt metaphor for a country which has colonialism built into its very infrastructure, as many of its palaces and monuments were funded by the extraction of raw materials from the Congo.

Image courtesy of the Africa Museum.

During our recent visit, Siska discussed how she, as coordinator of conservation, had to make difficult trade-offs during the renovation. These tough decisions posed a challenge that she was uniquely well-equipped to make.

After noticing that the field of art conservation lacked conservators who could work with the materials used by non-Western cultures, Siska applied for a Fulbright grant to fund a master’s degree in the conservation and restoration of archaeological and ethnographic materials at UCLA. The program is unique in its holistic approach to art restoration that considers in great detail the value and meaning of the objects in their cultural context as a method for understanding how they should properly be preserved. Before her Fulbright grant, Siska helped restore the wall paintings of the galleries at the Rijksmuseum for such priceless works as The Night Watch and other masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Yet, she remarked that her experience with Fulbright made her “stronger in character” and that traveling to America gave her the spirit to more courageously strive for her goals, leading to where she is now.

Image courtesy of the Africa Museum.

While working at the Africa Museum during its renovation, Siska has had to find a way to balance the differing interests and viewpoints of Congolese representatives and members of the African diaspora in Belgium. Other challenges came from the artifacts themselves: there were many artifacts under her jurisdiction that their respective cultures would traditionally not even permit a woman to touch. Her work requires an intricate interdisciplinary knowledge of the arts, ethnography, history, race and gender studies, and museum studies— all fields of study that the Fulbright Commission in Belgium prides itself on supporting.

Talking to Siska brought up many interesting questions: How can a museum teach people about what is unfamiliar, without turning people and heritage into static objects? How can a museum decolonize the minds of its visitors and engage on the subject of modern colonialism with a public not always receptive to such a discussion? In its re-opened, antediluvian state, the Africa Museum has simultaneously been lauded for breaking ground into a re-examination of Belgium’s history and been criticized for maintaining some of the attributes which made it a problem in the first place.

The Fulbright Commission is seeking scholars who can navigate and help to answer the difficult questions listed above and to question systems world-wide which oppress and disfranchise. The Commission is also seeking scholars who do not give up and respond joyfully when a surprise flood nearly ruins five years of work!

David Snower is an intern at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels. He recently visited the newly-renovated Africa Museum as part of staff visit.