Belgium begins a long road to the return of looted Congolese works of art

The Belgian Africa Museum, once a celebration of the country’s colonial rule, will begin a multi-year process to return art stolen from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Belgian government announced on Tuesday.

From the late 19th century to 1960, thousands of works of art, including wooden statues, elephant ivory masks, manuscripts and musical instruments, were likely taken by collectors, scientists, Belgian and European explorers and soldiers.

Following a 66 million euro ($78 million) overhaul of the Africa Museum to take a more critical view of Belgium’s colonial past, the government is ready to respond to calls for the restitution of the DRC.

“The approach is very simple: everything that has been acquired by illegitimate means, by theft, by violence, by looting, must be returned,” young Belgian minister Thomas Dermine told Reuters. “It doesn’t belong to us.”

It is estimated that millions of Congolese have died since the end of the 19th century, when the Congo was first a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II, before becoming a colony of the Belgian state.

Belgium will transfer the legal ownership of the objects to the DRC. But it will not immediately ship artwork into the country from the museum in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, unless specifically requested by DRC authorities.

That’s partly because the museum, which has proven popular since its renovation and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic, wants to preserve artifacts on display. One option is to pay an RDC loan fee.

Belgium says Congolese authorities are aware of the larger viewership in Belgium compared to the DRC, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the United Nations. It has few cultural centers or storage facilities.

“The museum believes it can cooperate with the Congolese authorities, as is the case among international institutions, to keep the objects in Belgium through loan agreements,” said museum director Guido Gryseels.

The museum also has a large number of objects whose provenance is unclear. He hopes to use a team of scientists and experts over the next five years to identify them and separate those that have been legally acquired by the museum.

“In five years with a lot of means we can do a lot, but it can 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 have been acquired,” said Grysels.

Placide Mumbembele Sanger, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kinshasa who works at the Tervuren museum, said the process was simple.

“These are objects that return to their natural context so I don’t see why we should ask so many questions,” he said. “It’s like you go out and someone steals your wallet and the person asks you whether or not you’re ready to get it back.”

Christopher S. Washington