Belgium has promised to return artworks plundered from its former Congolese colony, as it seeks to confront its brutal colonial past.
Belgium’s Africa Museum – a former totem to empire that has undergone a €75m revamp and “decolonisation” process – has said up to 2,000 works, including statues, musical instruments and weapons, were acquired illegally during colonial rule of a swathe of central Africa, mostly the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated Belgium’s reckoning with its colonial past, with statues to former King Léopold II defaced in the wake of the global protest.
Léopold II ran the Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom from 1885-1908, before ceding control to the Belgian government, which controlled the territory until independence in 1960.
This week, the Belgian government unveiled long-awaited plans for restoring plundered works to the DRC.
“Everything that has been acquired through force and violence under illegitimate conditions must in principle be returned,” said Thomas Dermine, the secretary of state for science policy. “Objects that have been acquired in an illegitimate fashion by our ancestors, by our grandparents, great-grandparents do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop.”
Belgium has returned works on an ad-hoc basis since the 1960s, but this is the first time items will be returned to Congolese ownership in a systematic way, without waiting for requests. The majority of the Africa museum’s collection – 85,000 of 120,000 items – came from Congo.
The issue has become a sore point between Belgium and the DRC, which has stepped up demands for the return of stolen artefacts in recent years. In 2019, the DRC president, Félix Tshisekedi, said looted works had to be returned in an “organised way” at the inauguration of a national museum in Kinshasa.
According to Guido Gryseels, the director of the Africa Museum, Guido Gryseels, between 1,500 and 2,000 works were acquired in “an illegitimate manner”, a figure that represents less than 2% of the collection.
The museum has confirmed that about 40,000 works could be affected if the definition of illegality was extended.
A spokesperson at the museum said works that were offered as gifts during colonial times could also be perceived as having been acquired in an illegitimate way.
Gryseels said the museum was “very open” to discussion and had sent a copy of its inventory to DRC and Rwanda. Belgium gained the territory of present-day Rwanda and Burundi from Germany after the first world war.
A commission of Belgian and Congolese specialists will be set up this autumn to share information and ensure the safe transfer of the work.
“It is a dialogue that will take several years,” Gryseels said. “The National Museum at Kinshasa cannot welcome more than 12,000 works … [Storage] remains a problem, but I insist it is not a condition for restitution.”
The museum hopes to keep some of the works in Belgium via loan agreements with the DRC.
Among the stolen works identified by the museum is the Lusinga statue, a wood, glass and feather carving of male ancestors, which belonged to a chief of the Tabwa people, Lusinga Iwa Ng’-ombe. He was decapitated by Belgian troops in 1884 on a punitive expedition led by the soldier and explorer Lieut Émile Storms. Storms, who set up a base on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika for King Léopold, acquired nearly 340 objects, including similar artworks and surrender treaties, which were bequeathed to the museum after his widow’s death.
The Storms bequest also included 100 weapons, although some came from parts of Congo he never visited, leaving museum researchers uncertain about how they were acquired.
Researchers have divided the museum’s collection into three categories: plundered objects, legally acquired works and those of uncertain provenance. The museum says Belgian and African specialists will be recruited to investigate the source of many objects.
The Belgian decision comes amid a burgeoning campaign for European countries to restore plundered treasures to former colonies.
Germany pledged to return its Benin bronzes to Nigeria earlier this year. Soon after taking office in 2017, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, promised to return African works held in French national museums – but campaigners have since criticised the slow pace of restitutions.