Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.

It was hard to determine which was worse: the halls filled with cabinets of barely organized pre-European African relics, frequently mixed in with relics from other continents, including North America; rows upon rows of stuffed or formaldehyded animals, their flesh exuding the desire to decay, permanently postponed and demeaned; the idyllic paintings decking the exhibits that depict an Edenic Congo, hiding the viciousness of the colonial experience there; or the statues of noble savages, including one of a muscular warrior slaying the serpent, undoubtedly a vision of what Adam should have done instead of biting the cursed apple.

There were lots of children running around. Liza, like most Belgians, had visited the museum as a child, sort of the equivalent of my childhood trips to the New York Museum of Natural History or the Bronx Zoo. So, it was interesting to juxtapose the wonder of all that frozen nature experienced by the children and the horror experienced by us as adults — two sides of the same awe?

The archaic quality of the museum’s exhibits struck us, at one level, as a testament to the history of science, particularly the cycloptic quest for specimens and this endeavor’s sordid tryst with colonialism. The Congo was the original petri dish syndrome, long before the Manhattan Project or today’s development of the synthetic cell, when the scientist’s obsession for knowledge disregards all other ethical considerations. Indeed, the extent to which science has entailed the objectification of its subjects, then the Congo can also be seen as the first great tragedy of instrumentalization.

Indeed, at another level, the scent of pillage, materialistic obsession, and total disregard and even disdain for the individual identity of an ecosystem and its people wafted everywhere, whether it be all the pinned insects or stuffed animal skins, or the images of chopped hands, whipped bodies, and vast rubber plantations that we knew lurked behind those utopian depictions on the walls. For Liza and I, this museum stunk of avarice in all its varieties — economic, political, and scientific.

A docent informed us that the museum shall be undergoing a renovation in two years’ time, during which those halls memorializing the dark side of inquriy — the exploration of physical and cultural space as conquest, in which the explored is the consumed — would finally be taken down. “It’s an embarrassment,” she said. We felt that would be a profound mistake.

Liza and I have meditated together a lot about the riddle of embodiment in religion, particularly in the Bahai Faith, and I’ve been moving more and more in the direction of viewing the relationship between the spiritual and the material as an ecology, that is, an integrated and mutually enriching system. After all, a defining characteristic of nature is order, namely, that although everything is in process, everything nevertheless has its valuable part to play — a cosmos in the fullest sense of the old word.

This museum, however, reminded us of the duality that’s also within nature, at least as perceived by the human species, for there is also disorder endemic within that order: a diorama of a small serpent devouring a mouse head-first, the latter’s body gone limp as its identity was devoured, and a photograph of a mighty python who burst in the attempt to consume what looked like a dog, reminded me of Abdul-Baha’s remarks on the blindness, and indeed, the self-centeredness and self-destructiveness of animality.

Seeing the children made me think back to the awe I felt as a child whenever I read books about dinosaurs. A key feature of that feeling was the idea that there was “no one around to see it”: humanity is the element of consciousness within the physical universe, the force of self-awareness that remembers. Abdul-Baha frequently seems to oppose civilization to animality, and so perhaps that’s what he means — humanity records, reflects, and learns, nature does not, even if, unconsciously, traces of what was may be etched into the genetic code and the very flesh of things.

What was so wrong with Belgian science in the Congo, therefore, was that its obsession for specimen-gathering reduced science, that ultimate of conscious activities, into something beastly and impulsive — hunt, eat, sleep / search, collect, catalogue. Indeed, the entire Belgian colonial project, as Joseph Conrad understood, represented the descent of humanity into animality.

Thus, the Africa Museum, although it began as a way to coax or hide the truth, today stands as a testament to that descent, and all the horrors that such a fall brings upon the world. Yes, it’s a manifestation of humanity remembering, rather than slipping into the blissful and terrible momentariness of the physical. That’s too valuable to throw away just because we are too ashamed to keep the memories.

There’s a duality within civilization as well, though, at least as it’s been experienced in Belgium. If history is science, and indeed, humanity, remembering, then the current political and cultural discourse of Belgium is very much un-historical, that is, an attempt to misremember, if not even forget. Whereas the United States had its Congo deep within its borders and as a consequence had to constantly confront its own heart of darkness, Belgium could escape from the jungle and retreat back into the factories, bustling commerce, and vast urban sprawl of Modernity. In the view of many concerned Begians, the media and monarchy today continually downplay the colonial legacy in the Congo. Indeed, many everyday Belgians apparently believe that Belgium had left the Congo in a “good state” and it was Lumumba et al who “ruined it all”.

I wonder how much of the Congo’s raw materials gave rise to the squalid factories that then, in turn, birthed the Dutch-speaking labor union movement, which then, further in turn, led the way to the Leuven crisis and the current semi-partition of Belgium into its language zones and the intractable conflict constantly erupting out from it? Indeed, did the Flemish nationalists ever see an analogue in Congo to their own situation in their own homeland? My friend Liesbeth and I today were talking about the ongoing crisis with the federal government (or the lack thereof) and how it’s entirely a human crisis — there’s no resource shortage or geograpical problem underlying it, just entirely human affairs, like taxes and culture. The dark jungle followed the Belgians home, et il est en nous, en het is in ons.

And everywhere we went in the museum, around every corner, there was Leopold, staring at us from daunting busts and statues. The Roi-Bâtisseur, Koning-Bouwer: whenever I looked at his remorseless, marble visage, I kept seeing instead the faces of Niyazov and Nazarabayev, and whenever I would think of Leopold’s project-city, Brussels, I would see Asgabat and Astana. Gradually it dawned on me that perhaps the lessons of Sovietology could go some way to explain what Belgium is — or rather, what it isn’t. This is a country that should not have been, an artificiality shambled together from the ashes of empires, and like the post-Soviet states of today, it sought to forge an identity through enforcing uniformity in language, generating copious amounts of wealth, and frenzily building monumental symbols of political power.

In a sense, Belgium colonized itself, tried to clear away the jungle of dialects, duchies, and bishoprics with the orderly plantation of Franco-Catholic centralized rationalism. This museum, then, perhaps originally symbolized the triumph of the new nation-state, proof of the superiority of its model of civilization over barbarism, both internal with the Dutch-speakers and external with the Africans. The twice-revealed impotence of that nation-state against the Germans, and the subsequent decolonization in Flanders and the Congo, though, may have demonstrated the unsustainability of its Weberianesque narrative of sacralized societal instrumentalization and its secretly barbaric vision of being civilized.

The hollowing out of the Church and the federal government that’s so keenly felt today may thus perhaps be a manifestation of that narrative’s collapse. Belgium today is slowly disintegrating. Whether that process can be reversed, and if not, what lies at its terminus, slowly snaking ahead of us like the Congo River into the low-hanging mists of the future, is unknown. But in the dark, empty heart of that process you shall find standing there the Africa Museum.

[Note: Unfortunately, Liza and I didn't bring a camera. Except for the shot of the Africa Museum's exterior, which is a generic shot, the photos herein are from Flickr's Creative Commons. Click on them to see more.]

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19 thoughts on “Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

  1. So often you go back to experiences in your own life, as in today’s entry when you recall reading about dinosaurs and when you also think back on visiting the American Museum of Natural HIstory. …Anyway, I especially was struck by your phrase that humanity is the element of consciousnss within the physical world. Fascinating concept. There’s so much more in this blog! Your mind really moves swiftly. Dad

    • Hi Dad! Thank you for the comment, truly. Childhood is our first classroom and our parents our first teachers! :-)

  2. This is a brilliant post, I love the fact that you pointed out that Belgium and the Congo have both been colonized. In a way, decolonization never occurred, the Belgians left, but the international corporations stayed to harvest the materials that go into our touch screen smart phones. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conflict_minerals&oldid=413769758

    It was great to learn that this museum exists. It reminded me of when I studied the Rwandan Genocide as an undergrad.

    I agree with you that they should not change the exhibits they consider “shameful,” but leave them as monuments to the history of colonization, and add another wing which displays the dark side of those times.

    I think it is very important to keep reminding ourselves of the effects of colonization because we are all belong to the colony that the planet has become, and must find ways to free ourselves and everyone else.

    • Hi Layal! Thanks for the comment. Yes, I totally forgot to bring up the point that resource exploitation still continues today, to say nothing of the flood of refugees to Belgium as one consequence of the conflict surrounding that exploitation.

      As for science museums transforming into historical museums, I recognize that, depending on the resources available to them, it can be tricky. Nevertheless, the Africa Museum is today able to conduct quite modern and, one hopes, more ethical research and scientific presentation. For example, there was another exhibit of an anthropological and botanical expedition to the Congo conducted in 2010 that was far more heartening.

  3. The preservation of the original presentation is in itself an interesting move, as this may create a way to expose to a presumeably changed Belgian state of mind the profoundly inhumane colonial line of thought that is our national inheritance and of which this museum is a highlight. But our colonial history appears to be too young a history for us to engage in the confrontation. It is still a painfully absent topic in our history courses at school and as long as it remains so, the image of children running around through the halls is close to a nightmare. Not only does the whole thing breathe a over-aged line of scientific interest which reduced all and everything to studying-material, it is also a language of images which, just like 19th-century orientalism, sublimises “the other”, the exotic, as a world of another kind than our “civilised one”, making it an at hand source of gain as a consequence, recuireing no ethical consideration. This way of seeing has not yet left a large part of the actual art-porduction with Africa as its subject; picturing “the other” as an esthetic image always creates a certain gap and, in doing so, disctracts us from our involvement in the history that made Anfrica what it is. The museum should be aware of this and profile itself more actively as the piece of archival material that it is, rather than an institution containing it.

  4. Good post. Refreshing to read the perspective from a foreigner. One thing struck me:

    “There’s a duality within civilization as well, though, at least as it’s been experienced in Belgium. If history is science, and indeed, humanity, remembering, then the current political and cultural discourse of Belgium is very much un-historical, that is, an attempt to misremember, if not even forget.”

    I concur with that. Much of the political crisis in Belgium has to do with lack of historical knowledge on the one hand, and misrepresentation through populist leaders on the other hand. That’s why historians and philosophers are still useful in today’s society: to prevent us from sitting in Plato’s cave.

    I’m not going to write further commentary, as I’m not a historian nor ethician. However have a look at a website I created a few years ago: http://vlib.iue.it/hist-belgium/

    • Hey Steven! Two items. First, thank you for the remark, and also I feel I should again apologize for that earlier remark I made on Facebook regarding Wallonia. And second, your website is really quite a resource! Do you maintain it regularly?

      • Hi Chris, For clarity’s sake: I wasn’t offended myself by the Wallonia-remark. It’s just that I’m really sensitive right now for (over)generalisation. Why? Because populist politicians like Bart De Wever use it all the time to entice their voters – with dramatic results as we experience right now.

        Regarding the website: I haven’t done so recently (did collect numerous bookmarks), procastination…

      • Hey Steven, thanks for the clarification, and your concern is well-grounded. And as a Bahai I believe we can point to De Wever’s current impotence as indicative of the ultimate quality of that kind of politicking.

        Bro, you should really do more with it. Do you need help? I can put a call out among some historians I know…

        [Post-script, 04.03.2011: I shouldn't have said, "As a Bahai", as what I really meant was that according to my understanding of Bahai teachings about the partisan politics, then in my view it's logical, in a sense, that De Wever has not been able to achieve a consensus with his Wallonian counterparts.]

    • I can’t reply to your comments below on Bart De Wever, but wouldn’t it be more useful if all persons and parties involved in the debate would stick to the content of the debate instead of calling each other ‘populist’ or ‘traitor’ or whatever?

      • What should I call him then? Honest politician?

        Perhabs it would be better if I shut up alltogether and let Bart de Wever and N-VA speak for me? For them it would certainly be useful, so that they can claim to speak for all of Flanders. No, I rather resist. Indignez-vous!

      • Hey guys, if I may step in for a moment just to make sure this conversation stays civil?

        @ Michael: I wouldn’t equate “populist” with “traitor”. More importantly, Steven’s concern is for the potentially negative impact upon Flanders’ image abroad, and even within Belgium, by De Wever, who is unarguably a controversial figure (indeed, even many of his supporters voted for him because he is controversial).

        @ Steven: Michael’s concern is that focusing on the controversialism might obscure whatever real content someone like De Wever can potentially bring to the discussion. It’s easy to decry him as a “populist” and then ignore anything real he has to say.

        If it helps, this situation reminds me of debates in the United States over African American leaders like Malcolm X or Al Sharpton. So, Flanders is not alone in its struggle to find a leader who is simultaneously uniting at home, respectable abroad, and effective at bringing about real change.

  5. It’s just the time-consuming process of entering the data in valid HTML-code. Unfortunately, the project has not been automated yet. Will get around to it next month.

    I you would come across a Belgian historian/history-student who is interested in reviving the website, that would be most useful. The VL History-project (http://vlib.iue.it/history/) needs a (technical) makeover.

  6. Just a short remark. Our colonial history is indeed very sensitive. Being a product of it myself I am quite close to it. I think that is part of the problem a: we Belgians are still too close to judge objectively b: not wanting to be apologetic I am always ill at ease when we are judging past events with today’s knowledge or hopefully more mature and evolved ethics.

    To give due to the museum itself the temporary exhibitions they put on are usually very good and instructive.

    • Hi Annemie,

      I think you’re right. Even in America, our history with slavery is very sensitive, Obama’s election, Affirmative Action, and Civil Rights notwithstanding. As for the museum itself, I did mention the other exhibits in a comment above, but in the post itself I was just focusing on its older section, the part they apparently want to do away with.

      I’ve gotten e-mails from older Belgians, who are more worried about what I’m saying in here, and from younger Belgians, who support it, which suggests to me that there may be a generational difference at work. Perhaps the younger Belgians want there to be more recognition for what really happened precisely with today’s knowledge and (one hopes) more mature ethics?

      -Chris

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