Belgium Resumes Return of Looted Congolese Artefacts

Belgium Resumes Return of Looted Congolese Artefacts

A mask called "the Elephant Mask", dated to the 19th century, is pictured at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA)

The Belgian government says it will commence a multi-year process of returning stolen artefacts from its Africa Museum to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Thousands of art works including wooden sculptures, elephant tusks, manuscripts and musical instruments were likely taken from the late 19th century to 1960 by Belgian and European collectors, scientists, soldiers, and explorers.

Following a $78 million overhaul of the Africa Museum to take a more critical view of Belgium’s colonial past, the government is ready to meet DRC calls for compensation.

Belgian junior minister Thomas Dermine explained, “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.”

Under his reign, King Leopold II, millions of Congolese died up until becoming a colony of the Belgian state.

An ancestral statue at the Royal Museum for Central Africa

Belgium has agreed to transfer legal ownership of the artefacts to DRC. However, it doesn’t intent to ship art works from the museum in Tervuren, just outside Brussels to the country unless they are specifically requested by DRC authorities.

That is partly because the museum, which has proved popular since its renovation and attracted thousands of guests before the COVID-19 pandemic, wants to keep artefacts on display. Belgium has the option of paying a loan fee to DRC.

Belgium says the Congolese authorities are conscious of the bigger audience in Belgium compared to DRC, which has few cultural centres or storage facilities.

Museum Tervuren Glass showcases

“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,” said museum director Guido Gryseels.

The museum also has a huge number of artefacts whose origin is unclear. It hopes to use a team of scientists and experts over the next five years to identify them and to separate those that were acquired legally by the museum.

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