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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.

The museum in a leafy commuter town east of Brussels grew out of an exhibition that opened in 1898 to promote colonialism in the Central Africa.

Belgium’s King Leopold II had ruled the Congolese Free State virtually as a private domain since 1885, but the rapacious nature of the royal regime was coming under increasing international criticism, even from other colonial powers. The horrors of Leopold’s forced labor system inspired Joseph Conrad to write "Heart of Darkness. "

Leopold organized the exhibition in Tervuren to convince his Belgian subjects that the state should take on the running of a colony 80 times larger than their European homeland.

The exhibition was a success, visited by 1.5 million Belgians. After the Belgian state took oversight of the Congo in 1908, the current lavish fin-du-siecle museum building opened to hold the expanding collection of artifacts in 1910. The exploitative rule continued under the government, until the Belgians withdrew in 1960.

The failure to update the museum has long drawn criticism from those who say Belgium has never come to terms with the consequences of its colonial rule in Central Africa, where civil wars have continued to roil the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Until a few years ago, nothing on display gave any indication that millions of Congolese died unnatural deaths while these riches were being brought back to Europe,” Adam Hochschild, an American historian of Leopold’s regime, wrote in 2005. “It was as if there were a huge museum of Jewish art and culture in Berlin that made no mention of the Holocaust.”

Gryseels says there will be no attempt to airbrush the colonial era in the renovated regime. “We are not going to act as if that colonial past never existed, there will still be a part that shows that colonial history and put it in context,” he said.

However, he said he wants to put the emphasis on the richness of the African art in the collection, and focus on the museum’s parallel work as one of the leading European research centers on African history, culture, zoology, geology and forestry.

“We need to become a museum of the Africa of today and not on the Africa of the ‘50s,” Gryseels insisted.

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A boy who never grows old gets bigger

A city divided into rich and poor