Belgium Half-Heartedly Moves to Return Congolese Artworks

A view from the Introduction gallery: A Museum in motion

Belgium has begun the process of returning artworks taken away from Congo during the years of forced occupation also known as colonial era but has also proposed an offer that suggests the decision is a half-hearted gesture.

The Belgian government said on Tuesday that it’s willing to return the wooden statutes, elephant ivory masks, musical instruments, manuscripts and others stolen by soldiers, scientists and explorers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Belgium colonised the East African country after the reign of King Leopold II, where many Congolese lost their lives. Brussels says it is committed to returning the artworks at the Africa Museum, after an overhaul which cost $78million. Already, there have been contacts with the Congolese government for restitution of the looted artworks.

Challenging A Regrettable Past

The Royal Museum for Central Africa – now named the Africa Museum housed the desires of King Leopold II in African artworks. The Museum, which used to showcase Belgium’s blessings to Congo has been reworked and remodelled to rather show some remorse for the pillage of old.

The Africa Museum is considered a recognition of Belgium’s brutal past in Congo where King Leopold II subjected millions of locals to ruins and rampage, disease and war.

While it admits its regrettable past, it’s acceptance of the ruins of old still has holdbacks as often seen in revised old colonial relationships

Is Belgium Truly Returning The Artworks?

Belgian junior Minister, Thomas Dermine confirmed that every artwork taken through illegal means will be returned to the rightful owners as they truly don’t belong to his country.

“The approach is very simple: everything that was acquired through illegitimate means, through theft, through violence, through pillaging, must be given back. It doesn’t belong to us, ” he told Reuters.

While there will be a legal transfer of ownership of the artworks to Congolese authorities, they will continue to be displayed in the Africa museum in Tervuren, unless they are specifically sought by the Congolese government.

Brussels says it understands Congo DR doesn’t have as much audience as it controls as the newly refurbished museum has been attracting visitors before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The museum believes it will be able to cooperate with the Congolese authorities, as is common among international institutions, to keep the objects in Belgium via loan agreements,” museum director Guido Gryseels told journalists.

Also considered a possibility is the option of the payment of a loan fee to Congolese authorities while the art works continue to stay in Belgian museums.

There are also many artworks with unclear ownership, with the Belgian government hoping to employ the use of scientists in checking their possible roots.

“In five years with a lot of resources we can do a lot, but it could be work for the next 10 to 20 years to be absolutely sure of all the objects we have, that we know the precise circumstances in which they were acquired,” Gryseels said.

Although, it is noteworthy that Belgium has admitted the artworks were looted and don’t belong to them, it should rather teach, help, and show Congo how to make their agelong arts a sustainable source of income.

Keeping looted Congolese artworks in Belgium does no good to their source and the loan fees, if paid will be a far cry from what they’ll earn from having the artworks on display in Tervuren.

There are doubts over the ability of the Congolese government to protect its looted heritage, but Belgium’s offers are half-hearted and don’t depict a honest desire to return what it stole many years ago. Rather, its open admittance only looks to register its regret at the actions of its past but wouldn’t mind the economic benefits that accompany the pillage.

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