Congo hopes new museum can heal nation's scars

KINSHASA (Reuters) - In a macabre echo of the punishments Belgian colonials once meted out to their Congolese laborers, a faded bronze statue of the explorer who carved out the country is missing two of his limbs.

Pulled down by anti-imperialists after Congo’s former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko declared a policy rejecting colonial vestiges in 1971, the statue of Britain’s Henry Morton Stanley lies clutching a broken baton, his feet severed.

Stanley’s broken statue is one of more than 40,000 objects stored at Kinshasa’s national museum, which for 40 years has kept one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest collections of art behind closed doors in one of Mobutu’s old palaces.

The Institute of National Museums of Congo opens the collection -- rich in chief’s clothing, masks, spears, and other relics of Central African country’s cultural past -- to Kinshasa’s public for the first time on Thursday in a park overlooking a sweep of the Congo River.

“These are the things that can bring a people back to life -- this is what gives people pride in their country, to be Congolese,” said Professor Joseph Ibongo, director general of the museum.

Congo sorely needs it. As the country approaches its 50th year of independence from Belgian rule on June 30 it remains haunted by memories of brutal colonial masters, a 1998-2003 war in which millions died, and continued violence in the north and east.

“You can have a bloody, sad page in the book of our history, but you can’t tear out that page,” said Ibongo.


The British embassy has put out a tender to restore Stanley’s statue drawing criticism from those who have sought to expose the full horrors of colonial rule, including the severing of hands of rubber workers as punishment for low yields.

“Amazing to think of...Stanley on high again in Kinshasa,” said Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, in which he said King Leopold II, the Belgian king who ruled Congo as a personal possession, earned $1.1 billion from exploiting Congolese people, an estimated 10 million of whom died.

“It was Stanley who bamboozled hundreds of illiterate chiefs who didn’t have any idea what they were signing into giving their land over to the King of Belgium,” he told Reuters.

When Congolese authorities erected an enormous statue of Leopold in Kinshasa in 2005, it was removed within hours after people nearly rioted against the unwelcome reminder of colonialism. He was later moved to the museum.

“The kind of relics that tend to be preserved are the relics of the conquerors,” said Hochschild.

Chicottes -- a leather whip deployed by colonials -- and hand-chopping form no part of the collection, paid for by British and Belgian funding.

“Even if it’s a bad history, you can’t change history,” says Jose Batekele, over the sound of workmen hammering out finishing touches to the museum buildings. “Like Mobutu told us, we have one sole mother and one sole father -- Congo.”


Once home to more than 50 museums during the colonial period, Congo has rarely engaged with its history since.

“Cultural looting continues on a grand scale -- we have a lot of illicit trafficking of art objects,” said Ibongo, who wants the state to train customs officers and frontier police.

“At the time most of these objects were collected by Belgians, they didn’t have any cultural or intellectual value,” said Viviane Baeke, ethnological curator at Tervuren, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium which is funding the Kinshasa museum.

Tervuren began as a colonial treasure store, later criticized for failing to reveal Belgian brutality.

Baeke, who is helping curate the Congolese exhibition, said missionaries encouraged three generations of villagers to burn their wooden totems, statues and ancestor idols at the same time as Belgian officials collected objects for shows back home.

Today Belgium showcases more than 140,000 central African artifacts -- more than three times the number of artifacts on show in Congo itself -- and has returned only 200 pieces to Congo to date.

“At the time objects weren’t collected to be sold at Sotheby’s, although sometimes they were taken by force. They were just (viewed as) things for savages,” said Baeke. “Now these objects we now call African art have a value.”

Editing by Paul Casciato