The Africa Museum in Brussels -- and David Starkey
Even if you haven't read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, it's hard not to have picked up the point that Belgian rule in the Congo was terrible even on the usual standards of European colonialism in Africa. That said, I've always had a soft spot for the Royal Museum of Central Africa, just outside Brussels (and it has an honoured place on of my list of favourite but little-known museums -- a series I started several years ago on this blog and have been meaning to get back to).
I first visited this museum (in Tervuren, a quick tram ride from central Brussels) almost 10 years ago, with the daughter when she was doing a school project on the Congo. Then it was in its pristine state: it was a museum of itself, 'celebrating' the Belgian 'achievment' against the African 'savages'. Pride of place went to the statues in the front hall, large gilded personifications of kindly Belgium bringing peace, prosperity and civilisation to the grateful Congolese (as you see at the top of this post, in the statue of the look-alike Leopold clutching the African kids to his breast, and on the right with Mother Belgium doing much the same) -- but the early nineteenth century display of colonial memorabilia told a similar story. Stanley emerged as almost as much of a hero as Leopold, and the Heart of Darkness was nowhere to be seen.
A few years later we went again, and things were on the move -- for the worse I couldn't help feeling. There were glimpses of post-colonial political correctness appearing in the galleries which, understandable as they were, were so against the grain of the collection and its display (the whole thing had been put together under the auspices of Leopold himself for heaven's sake) that they risked looking faintly silly. They were in fact a bit like the new wave at the Natural History Museum in London, with its pious little notices about how we wouldn't hunt and stuff wild animals these days. It seemed to me that it would have just been better to leave the whole thing as it was and let us see what the colonial vision was like straight, and allow us to make our own minds up.
Anyway, I went back (with the husband and the son) this weekend and was prepared for the worst, I fully expected computer screens and interactive push buttons... "The Belgian intervention in the Congo was: (a) good or (b) bad)", with a serious computerised ticking off to anyone stupid enough to press button (a).
Actually, it turned out to be a nice suprise. For quite a lot of the early twentieth century display had been rather carefully, and self-awarely, restored. As you can see, I hope. True, this was mostly in the natural history parts of the museum (despite the difficulties that you find in South Kensington, it is rather easier to come to terms with the colonial treatment of elephants than the colonial treatment of human beings). But even in the historical sections, a good deal of the post-colonial points were being made by adding sharp twenty-first responses to the traditional displays. There was, for example, a great photographic exhibition contrasting pictures taken in the Congo under Belgian rule with pictures taken now. In fact this was part of a project which tried to gather contemporary Congolese reactions to old colonial photos -- something the daughter is wanting to do in South Sudan. (The image on the left is of two kids standing on the ruins of the kind of 'geodectic marker' that the Belgian on the right leans against.)
All the same, the most dramatic impact in the museum is still the front hall, with those gilded statues of Belgian benificence to the benighted natives (even if some of them are now awkwardly -- or conveniently -- hidden behind the coat lockers). What strikes me, looking at these, is not the fact that some of the Belgian administration (and for 'Belgian' you could read 'British') must have been well aware that paternalism was a convenient cover for exploitation. I am sure that was sometimes the case; but more often the Belgian bourgeoisie must have turned up to this Museum and genuinely felt that it was a testament to their country's good works.
Which is to say that the interesting historical question (and one that the decor of the Brussels Museum raises emphatically) is not whether colonialism/empire was good or bad; but how we can start to understand how it seemed morally good to so many ordinary, decent western people. Self interest isn't a good enough answer. But there is an unimaginable leap of historical empathy here.
Those were the thoughts on the tram back to the hotel, where we caught up with the new Starkey row, which was not entirely unconnected. If I have got the story right, Starkey was in trouble for saying that if you heard David Lammy on the radio you would think he was white. Starkey seems to have thought this somehow to Lammy's (or the country's) discredit, whereas I felt that it was probably something to celebrate that you couldnt tell a black from a white voice on Radio 4 (or alternatively that, as always in Britain, it was class not race that was audible).
Lammy was to start with pretty restrained in his reply, but eventually came out with words to the effect of "Starkey should stick to sounding off about the Tudors". The objections to this were obvious. Starkey might be a rather undistinguished example of the genre -- but the Brussels Museum makes the powerful case that we DO need historians thinking and speaking about exactly these issues of race and ideology.