When Guido Gryseels (70) closes the door of the African Museum behind him this evening, he is no longer the director. An era of twenty years is coming to an end for the museum. ‘Many children no longer remember that we have a history in the Congo.’
You announced your retirement five years ago, but now it’s really happening?
“Absolutely. The minister has always asked me to stay a year longer. The museum reopened in 2018 after a five-year renovation. At the time it was very busy. A few years later there was corona. The available space for a successor could also first announced when there was a new chairman of the umbrella organization of federal museums and scientific institutions.”
How do you look back on the – rather controversial – renovation of the museum? The collection got a new look, but according to critics there was still too little attention to the colonial past.
“When we started planning the renovation ten years ago, those subjects received much less attention. Immediately after the reopening of the museum, there was a very rapid development in social thinking. There were protests by Black Lives Matter, followed by the controversy surrounding the statues of Leopold II, and the establishment of a parliamentary committee on colonialism. We look at the past with a critical eye in the museum. But in the meantime, minds have evolved much further.”
But Congo’s history is still handled in one room?
“Look, I completely agree that there is still too little room for the colonial past. Next year the museum will be 125 years old and it has also been five years since we opened the doors again after the renovation. It is time for a thorough evaluation and then we must think carefully about which museum we want in the future. I am convinced that the area of the museum devoted to this will be much larger in the long term.”
Isn’t it time to make the colonial past the central starting point?
“Some think it should become a memorial institution, like Kazerne Dossin, for example. 20 years ago we discussed proposals in this direction internally, but there was still no support for them at that time. You hadn’t found the money to set something like that up either. Most Belgians still had a positive image of colonialism. You heard that the Belgians in the Congo did good things, such as building hospitals and building roads.
“Our museum was once established to showcase the riches of the Congo and to promote colonialism. But today we want to be an institution that condemns the injustices of the past while showing today’s Africa with its challenges. I think you can still do both parts: That you can create a museum about Africa, where the commemoration also has an important place, because both parts are still needed.
“In the first years after the reopening, we had more than 300,000 visitors each year. Every year, 30,000 to 40,000 students visit the museum. But we feel that knowledge among young people about the past is decreasing. Many children no longer know that we have a history in the Congo. We also want to show young people where racism comes from and how it still affects society today. We do this by organizing workshops and debates.”
Nevertheless, some Belgian Congolese are dissatisfied with the museum because diaspora organizations were given too little say in the renovation.
“We now work together with the diaspora for all our public activities. Some of the critics from a few years ago are now here every day to debate with young people. But of course there are still critical voices, and it is right that we must do more. We must strive for greater diversity, not only in the workforce but also in the governing bodies. At the same time, there is a need for more cooperation with African institutions. Steps are being taken everywhere, but there is still a long way to go.”
What about the return of Congolese artefacts in the meantime?
“At the end of June, a bill was passed on a legal framework that would make something like this possible. Until now, the objects from the federal collections have been ‘inalienable’. It is now possible to return if the item has entered the collection illegally. We have just received a grant of 2.4 million euros to carry out provenance research in our collections. The next step is to set up a Congolese-Belgian commission to judge issues of restitution.
“The Congolese museums are now mainly looking at which objects they need to supplement their own collections. The Congolese also want to prioritize the training of experts who can restore pieces and to establish good storage sites. Many small museums in the Congo are in poor condition and are currently closed to the public.”
In the past, you preferred to keep the collection doors closed. Have you developed in that area?
“It’s true, I used to think of something like traveling exhibitions, but now returning some items is definitely on the agenda. Sometimes during a debate I am asked if I am being opportunistic because I say something different today than I used to. But no, I just listen to people. If I thought exactly the same today as I did twenty years ago, I was wrong.”