New AfricaMuseum exhibition highlights research on origins of collection

A new exhibition entitled ReThinking Collections opens on Friday at the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. It sheds light on research into the provenance of art and cultural objects from Africa. The museum is aiming to move towards more transparency and openness about where its collection comes from and how it ended up in Belgium.

Discussions about restitution and the return of colonial objects have been going on for some time. Since 2022, Belgium has had a legal framework for the return of objects looted during the colonial period, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These objects are in the possession of the state, mostly in the AfricaMuseum.

Violence, theft and manipulation

"Some of the objects in our collection are undoubtedly controversial and were acquired through violence, theft or manipulation," says museum director Bart Ouvry. "We want to be completely transparent about this."

Ouvry, a former diplomat who has led the museum since 2022, visited the DRC in September to discuss the issue with the Congolese Culture minister, Catherine Kathungu Furaha. The country has since also set up a national commission responsible for the repatriation of Congolese cultural property, archives and human remains.

The exhibition itself focuses on the research carried out on the objects to find out how they ended up in Belgium, using tools such as donation labels, metadata analysis and oral history. ReThinking Collections presents around 60 objects that have been subjected to such research.

At the heart of one collection is a statue from the Boma region of the Congo, which was looted and brought to Belgium in 1878. There are also pieces of pottery taken from tombs and a necklace belonging to an important African trader. The exhibition covers the periods before, during and after colonisation.

"Research cannot answer every question about every object. Many pieces will remain 'silent pieces', where it is not possible to fully trace their provenance," says scientist Sarah Van Beurden. "Therefore, the question of whether an object should be returned should not depend solely on provenance research. Several paths should be able to lead to restitution."

The exhibition will run until the end of September.




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