Royal Museum for Central Africa

Looking “history straight in the eye”: Belgium takes significant step in the restitution of Congolese objects

Last week, Belgium handed over a list of 84,000 artifacts of Congolese origin to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first step in the process of restitution of objects from the colonial period. The items are held in the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, an institution with one of the largest collections of African objects in the world which was established at the end of the nineteenth century.

The announcement was made by Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Belgium State Secretary for science policy, recovery program, and strategic investments, Thomas Dermine, and the director general of the AfricaMuseum, Guido Gryseels, on the occasion of the visit of the Congolese delegation to Belgium. The Belgian government have also pledged 2 million euros in funding to a project of research, which is to be carried out collaboratively by the two countries, to research the provenance of each of the items on the list. The objects are all those which date from the colonial period (1885-1960) in the museums’ collection, and whilst the Belgians believe many of these have been acquired legally, it has been accepted that many others have not. The Nkisi Nkonde statue is one such object on the inventory list, which was looted from the region of Boma in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1878.

Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde said that, “The return of Congolese cultural objects is part of the process of re-appropriating our collective memory”. He further highlighted how the looting of cultural objects from the African continent amounts to the deprivation of Africa’s “heritage” and thus “its intrinsic values”

The Belgian Prime Minister emphasised the need to confront the colonial past of the country, stating that “there are some works of art that have come here because of theft or violence. We should not be afraid to look that history straight in the eye”.

However, whilst this is an important and significant moment, it marks only the first step in the long journey towards restitution. Campaigners working toward the return of looted objects to Africa have highlighted the past concealment of inventories such as this as a huge obstacle in restitution. Whilst the creation of this inventory, which in fact comprises 70% of the entire collection of the AfricaMuseum, is a positive step, some have queried why this information has not been made available to the public. Historian Yasmina Zian, who has written on the restitution of cultural heritage, questions, “Why is it [the inventory] given to a member of the government, and why is the USB key not on the museum’s website? Why doesn’t the average person have access to these inventories?”

Despite this criticism, this is undoubtedly an important step in the process of restitution of African looted art. It demonstrates the importance of reviewing and understanding provenance information for objects that may have long formed part of museum collections. Returning objects like this is only possible where the nations involved are able to collaborate effectively.

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