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Reinventing a colonial-era Africa Museum

It will take almost $100 million to renovate Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa.

TERVUREN, Belgium — Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium, but the Royal Museum for Central Africa still seems lodged within the colonial era.

Dusty cabinets are cluttered with moldering stuffed wildlife, mementos of expeditions led by pith-helmeted officers and jumbles of tribal artifacts with little explanation of their function or meaning.

The entrance hall is dominated by monumental statues glorifying colonial rule. Prominent among them is "Belgium bringing security to the Congo," which shows a naked African youth kneeling at the feet of an armor-clad white woman.

But it's not like museum staff don't know they have a problem.

“The permanent exhibition as you visit it today still basically reflects the view of Belgium on Africa before 1960,” acknowledged Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. “The way they set up things is very colonial.”

Successive administrators of the museum have struggled for decades to rustle up enough money to overhaul the exhibition halls, exorcise their colonial demons and create a worthy showcase for one of the world’s finest collections of African art.

Now Gryseels appears to have succeeded. He has mustered a 70 million euro budget (almost$100 million) for a four-year project designed to give the museum its first major refurbishment since 1958.

“We need to have a major renovation,” he said.

A high-profile exhibition running until January gives a taste of how the modernized museum may look. Called "Persona," the show presents 180 ritual masks mainly from Central and West Africa punctuated with contemporary works by African artists, including many working in Europe.

Spectacular Chokwe masks from the Congo-Angola border are juxtaposed with two works: a video installation by Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare and "Blacks' heads/Empty heads," a disturbing work featuring blacked out portraits by Togolese-born El Loko. An arrangement of ceremonial masks representing women leads to the rope and wood “Nude woman” by award-winning Senegalese sculptor Mustapha Dime.

“It’s about identity,” said the exhibition’s curator Anne-Marie Bouttiaux. “Some people in the (African) diaspora have the feeling they have to wear a mask to make an impression in their lives. That’s why it’s called 'Persona,' it reflects the roles people have to play.”

Many of the masks on show come from the museum’s matchless collection of Central African art, most which is kept in storage and only occasionally viewed by the public.