Democratic Republic of Congo Will Request Return of Cultural Objects from Belgium

The Democratic Republic of Congo announced that it is planning to make an official request for the repatriation of artworks from the Africa Museum in Belgium. In an interview with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, President Joseph Kabila said that if the objects are returned, they will be displayed in a new national museum that is under construction in the capital of Kinshasa.

The news comes on the heels of the reopening of Belgium’s Africa Museum, which recently completed a five-year $73 million renovation and expansion project. The institution’s director general Guido Gryseels, told the New York Times that the overhaul of the museum was, in part, prompted by the need to rid it of its racist image.

“Entire generations of Belgians came here and got the message that colonialism was a good thing, that we brought civilization and welfare and culture to Congo,” he said. The majority of the museum’s 120,000 objects came from the Congo. As part of the revamp, the collection has undergone its first major rehang since the 1950s, new wall texts were created, and rooms dedicated to the Belgium’s colonial legacy in the Congo and to the country’s African community have been added.  

While the renovation is a major step in Gryseels’s campaign to change the way in which the museum grapples with the past, for many it’s not enough. French President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to returning objects to Africa has also placed increasing pressure on other museums and countries with colonial-era collections.

For Gryseels, cultural heritage “should be retuned when possible.” Citing the museum’s decision to return 114 objects, which later went missing after the outbreak of civil war, between 1976 and 1982, Gryseels expressed doubts about whether certain countries were ready to care for and safeguard artifacts. While he said that long-term loans might be the better way to go for some African countries, he also told press at the museum’s reopening that it is ready for “constructive dialogue” and is “willing to consider requests for restitution.”