The Threat of Race

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Friday August 1, 2008

DIS-ARMING CHARM by David Theo Goldberg

Posted by David Theo Goldberg 1 comment(s)

The Royal Belgium Museum for Central Africa (known in short as the Tervuren Museum after its location at the countryside edge of Brussels) has a century long history, about which I write critically in the pages of The Threat of Race (see pp. 169-75). Those pages are predicated on the basis of a visit to the Museum, its accompanying catalogs and commentary prior to 2005, when the Museum leadership began to rethink the design and representation of the institution in the wake of growing vocal criticism both locally, especially from Congolese Belgians, and internationally.

The institution has set out as a consequence to craft a “new” museum. “The aim of the restoration and renovation project,” a message at the entrance now greets visitors, “is to bring the Museum in line with the needs and requirements of the 21th [sic] century, but without affecting its charm.”

The charm! The charm! 

This, of course, assumes that the Museum indeed has embodied charm. The heart of whiteness. It is a charm, if at all, appealing only to prevailing national sentiment deemed presumptively European, (not so) silently racially white. For those who or whose families had been so blatantly violated by the long and lingering legacy of vicious Belgian colonialism and neocolonialism in the Congo basin, charm is scarce a characterization that would jump innocently to mind.

The Museum has now initiated a makeover, both of the architecture and of the exhibits. These “remarkable” renovations will leave the original main building, haunted by its history, largely intact if not untouched. In order “to bring the Museum into the 21st century,” the renovation will consist mainly of adding a car park and stand-alone reception entrance to the left, linked by an underground passageway and three new temporary exhibition spaces on the way to the old building. The original building will remain the home of the permanent collection of masks, colonial artifacts and African ecology (stuffed animals and fauna). The renovation is due to be completed in 2013 at a cost of more than E66m. It is unclear how much of a makeover the permanent collection will face. For a digital model of the planned renovation, see

In the meantime, the Museum has modestly reordered its permanent exhibits while the renovation is ongoing, in large part to be able to add temporary exhibits that are less fawning of the colonial record and a little less blind to its violence. In the resulting mess, the almost chaotic and cramped condition of exhibits today has rendered the exploitative and demeaning character of the original, pre-2005 displays a touch less conspicuous. There is a hint, but not more, of critical distance, if not self-reflection, altogether missing from the original, the addition of a single visibly Congolese Belgian commentary about the considerable collection of masks nevertheless reinforcing the renovatory white-wash.

The rotunda, taken as the old building’s architectural highlight, remains the interim Museum entrance. But it is now opened up by temporarily relocating the Museum shop, previously squeezed into a closeted corner of the rotunda (if rotundas can have corners), down to the end of the main hallway of “Central African ethnography” housing the extraordinary and haunting collection of masks from the Congo basin. [For a floor plan of the Museum’s layout, see] The gold leaf statues about which I write in the book continue to circle the rotunda, their insidious inscriptions about Belgium bringing civilization and economic wellbeing to the Congo now only partly hidden from self-embarrassment where before they had been boldly proclaimed. The Museum website is more explicit. [] Including an image of one of the controversial statues, the Museum website comments that the statues generally 

also emphasize the philanthropic intentions of the colonizers. They embody the salvational task of the European mission to bring the “benefits of civilization” to Africa.

White man’s burden, the European civilizing mission, it seems, is still rationalized as philanthropic duty. Salvation for whom, exactly, and in resurrectionary penance for what? The lingering political theology of race continues to conjure the saving of the European soul by civilizing those not yet.

This claim to introduce civilization to a place at Africa’s center considered otherwise to lack it continues to be circulated, though more quietly, through the Museum’s colonial exhibits. This is most evident in the permanent exhibit lauding the mercenary H.M Stanley, set to colonizing Central Africa in Leopold’s behalf, while at the same time inflating his self-aggrandizement. But it is there as well in the temporary and hastily thrown together exhibit on the era closing formal Belgian colonialism at the close of the 1950s.

One could be excused for thinking that the Museum’s declared shift to a more self-consciously critical concern with Belgian colonial history would nowhere be better reflected than in its permanent exhibit of H.M. Stanley’s role in the colonization of Central Africa. And yet while the website proclaims this a new exhibit, the material on display remains pretty much untouched, combining objects from what previously had been a couple of adjacent rooms into one. The Museum curators have chosen to overlay the originally exhibited material with transparencies stuck to the windows of the display cabinets listing mildly competing comments about Stanley’s legacy from different political subject-positions. The Museum thus seeks to position itself as a neutral observer of competing claims about Belgian colonial legacy, neither perpetrator nor critic. 

“The way in which colonization is portrayed,” one such transparency declares, “varies with time and depends on those involved: back then it was shown in a flattering light, now it is regarded more critically.” Resorting to an exaggerated expression of historical relativism, the Museum now seeks to transform itself from colonial predator (how exactly did it come by all those masks, stepping on and over whose bodies in fact?) into dispassionate “neutral” observer of its own legacy, its raison d’etre, its “charming” voice of contemporary Belgian nationalism.

Indeed, there are subtle insinuations dotted throughout the exhibits that colonization and slavery were not just widely practiced at the time but more deeply a needed response to local incapacity. Belgian colonialism and slave practices accordingly were not anomalous and, like colonialism and slavery more generally, are considered to have been called for. The insinuation seems to be that they were necessary, a “reasoned” response to local incapacity. 

What is shocking about this is less that it was the rampant rationalization of these conditions at the time; such rationalizations, after all, are well known to those familiar with the colonial record. What makes it so disturbing is that a major museum would shamelessly claim these rationalizations to be historically compelling still today. And to do so in the name of “bringing the Museum into the 21st century.” 

Belgian enslavement, such as it was, is deemed by the Museum curators today as little different from world historical forces afoot at the time:

The slave trade in its Eastern, African, European, and American carnations, is a major trauma in the history of Africa. The trade in slaves destabilized Central Africa by depopulating it, by displacing fleeing populations, by unbalancing societies and normalizing violence. Colonization took hold in weakened regions.

No matter that by the time Belgian colonization began the world slave trade and slave-holding had pretty much been declared unacceptable by those societies taking themselves to be civilized. Nor mention either of the perpetrating forces by name; that slavery was at work in the East, in Africa, by Europeans and Americans means that Belgian enforcement of servitude was no different than that found to be at work everywhere. Slavery in Africa is imputed by the Museum, today as before 2005, to be largely driven by Arab slave traders. Colonization was not imposed; it “took hold.” And it was not an exerted insertion by forces exterior but gripped “weakened regions” as though the product of their own weakness.

Writing about the establishment of the Congo Free State, then, the Museum argues that 

In its desire for expansion disguised as a civilizing mission, Leopold II personally creates, with Belgium’s consent, a new political, economic, and cultural entity in Central Africa known as the Congo Free State (C.F.S.). This new structure brings changes to African societies, although the former political and cultural legacies do manage to survive.

As a country without a mother-state and in the hands of an omnipotent sovereign, the C.F.S. enjoys the support of missions and private societies.

The civilizing and emancipatory slogans of the C.F.S. are in conflict with an economic policy which [sic] has disastrous effects in certain regions of the state.

Buried beneath the mild distance these comments seek to take from Belgian colonial heritage in the Congo basin are insinuations of more neutral structural forces at work, not to mention benefits of colonization for the colonized. It is economic policy, not the actions of Belgian boots on the ground, that is disastrous but then again only for parts of the Congo region, not for all its people. People in fact bear no mention, barren land and its lot for the taking. Colonization introduces changes to local society, but not wholescale change so not all is lost, how bad can it be? The C.F.S. enjoys—enjoys!—missionary support and private charitable intervention. 

Where are the local voices here? Of that which cannot be spoken, of those determined incapable of speaking for themselves, pass over in silence. 

There is acknowledgment of the embarrassment that the Museum’s Gallery of Remembrance, its hall of heroes, inscribes on its walls only the names of the 1500 plus Europeans fallen in the Congo basin in the name of Belgian colonial effort. But this too is blurred through the gauze of Euro-historical relativism. This was European practice at large, perhaps no more should be expected of Belgium:

The attentive visitor will not fail to notice that, at the time, no need was felt to question the Belgian presence in Central Africa. There was no mention of the Congolese victims, for instance. The viewpoint is exclusively European and concentrates on a few historical episodes. The underlying reality of colonial events was completely ignored.

At the time? 1934? The first mention of Congolese victims in the Museum, so far as the records of public display reveal, was 2005! And in the equation of Belgian with indigenous suffering, still no mention is made today of the fact that Congolese dead and maimed as a result of Belgian colonial adventure makes Belgian suffering seem like a walk in the park. Against whatever individual suffering must be measured the collective terror and its lingering trauma across 75 years of formal rule. Between 1885 and the inscription of the names on the wall in 1934, for every Belgian death in the Congo there were something like 7000 local deaths attributable to Belgian presence.

The Museum goes further, though, seeking to establish that Belgian legacy cannot be all that awful if the Congolese at the time of independence themselves “duly commemorated Belgians and other Europeans as well.” How badly history has treated poor Belgians! Indeed, how generous “we” have been. Look at all the aid “we” have provided, even in the face of insult, crisis, turmoil:

Despite the numerous crises between the two countries, Belgium provided significant aid up to its 1990 break in relations with President Mobutu. From 1960 to 1990, its cumulative aid amounted to E7.4b. During these 30 years, Belgium was Congo’s most important partner. Since the end of the 1990s, Belgium has worked to develop new means of partnership with Congo and Central Africa. 

There remains one consistent thread through the Museum linking the present revisions to its even more troubled past. Despite its recent veneer of neutrality in its representation of Belgium’s violent history in Central Africa, the Museum remains overwhelmingly committed to whitewashing Belgian’s colonial legacy. Far from neutrality, it is concerned, now as then, at basis to put the best face on Belgium’s African adventures.

This is borne out too in the Museum’s temporary exhibit on the transitional period from Belgian colony to Congolese independence. A large black and very white photograph of Belgium’s former King Badouin dominates this exhibit. Photographed at his arrival to hand over power from the Belgians to a Congo asserting its independence much to the chagrin of the colonizers, he stands in full ceremonial military regalia. His starched white uniform drips with ribbons and medals, stiff white cap beaked in black. The solemn face of the colonizer, the uniform of empire, as if insisting on the pristine innocence of its whiteness. And as if to shield himself both from the horrors his country was seeking to leave buried alive and from the glare of his military suit, his eyes are completely unseen, covered by the darkest sunglasses the wealth of empire could acquire to cover up the occasion, to hold it at bay. NATO’s host. asserting absolute authority at the passing moment colonial power is ceded.

Horror, upon horror!

Congo’s liberating Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, on the other hand, is portrayed by the Museum as the enfant terrible, the dangerous revolutionary who would quickly pull the Congo and the region into chaos. At the handover ceremony on June 30, 1960, following Badouin’s rationalization of the colonial regime as good for the natives and an inanely “conciliatory” speech by Congolese President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba (who had been excluded from speaking at the event) famously presented a scathing critique of Belgian colonial violence as Badouin and the Belgian dignitaries sat seething. The Museum, far from neutral, pithily reduces the traumatic events that would engulf the Congo in the period shortly to follow completely to Lumumba’s responsibility: “[Lumumba’s] tone,” the Museum genealogy of events puts it, “will be the destabilizing element.”

No matter that, for all his failings, within ten weeks Lumumba would be deposed in a coup by US- and Belgium-aided Mobutu, arrested and eventually tortured following his escape and re-arrest, marched off to a secluded spot in the dense bush of Katanga province. No trial necessary, there he would be summarily executed by a firing squad that included officers of the Belgian military and police whose bullets, it was finally apologetically acknowledged by the Belgian government in 2002, helped to kill Lumumba. The secret execution was attended by the Congo’s new President Tshombe. 

Not a word of this in a Museum intent on insisting that Congolese demise over the thirty years the institution insists Belgium was so economically supportive was pretty much of Lumumba’s making. As if ten weeks of rule in the face of intense hostility, notwithstanding the man’s own limitations, could come close to trumping a century of colonial and neocolonial repression. If only Lumumba had happily extended exploitation postcolonially. all would have turned out happily . . .

So in the name of turning a new leaf the Museum neoliberally deepens the historical misrepresentation. Seeming to take away the terms of historical condemnation in the name of its acknowledgment, it enables the extension of a public denial no longer available to formal government expression. Face is saved as public history is rewritten. Race remains the out-there, the mark of Africa’s lack of civilization, as out of place in self-reference as speakable only in denial, in its silences, in reference to its colonial heritage, at home as historically.

Along related lines, then, there is a current exhibition, “Black is Beautiful,” in Amsterdam’s famed Nieuwe Kerk located at the Dam Square ( . The show includes some really interesting and revealing work reflecting on the history of representations of black people in Dutch art, from Rubens to Marlene Dumas. (There is an exhibit catalogue available, Black is Beautiful: Rubens to Dumas. Amsterdam: Waanders Publishers Zwolle, 2008.) The first more or less comprehensive show of its kind in the Netherlands, it is clearly more mindful than its Belgian counterpart in its self-consciousness about the figures of blackness in its national historical corpus. And yet at a more abstract level, the Amsterdam exhibit and the Tervuren Museum disturbingly continue to share a set of presumptions about the place and representation of black people in European social history and culture. 

Like the Museum, “Black is Beautiful” adopts a supposedly neutral stance about the history it takes on, describing conditions at a distance, refusing for the most part much critical disposition to its own history other than to note some earlier misperceptions about stereotypes. Indeed, the very title of the exhibit and repetition of its theme throughout indicate a compensatory need to exaggerate, to borrow its cue from a forty year old set of struggles not least in face of the fact that while some of the work resonates the beauty of blackness, there is enough historical representation in the show to reflect the long legacy of stereotypic artistic representations of blackness as perniciously ugly. And, as Gary Schwartz points out in a thoughtful reflection on the exhibition, as much horrifying material is left out, from depictions of torturing black bodies to the inexcusable absence of any reference to Zwarte Piet (

In both institutional cases, then, the curatorial disposition is that of the presumptive whiteness of Europe and of blackness as its outside, the habitation of elsewhere. Black presence in Europe is considered exceptional, as non-belonging, as the proverbial outsider. Nowhere is there the understanding that blackness is constitutive of modern Europe, And not just as constitutive outside, its shadow, though that too. But also as its ground, a condition of the possibility of what it came to make of itself, from within. Like “the Moor and the Jew,” as I indicate in The Threat of Race, “the Black” makes modern Europe conceivable, a mirror at once reflective and distorting, revealing and concealing. And while the curators of both the Museum and the exhibit consulted with black advisors, in both instances black contributions are pretty marginal and minor, seemingly affirmations of the prevailing point of view. It remains instantaneously self-evident to any critical observer that in both cases these are white frames, representations of whiteness, a crease in the status quo perhaps, but the status quo solidified in place nonetheless.

The Tervuren Museum, it must be emphasized, remains far more pernicious than the oversights, framngs, and failings of the Amsterdam exhibition. The Museum’s message seems clear in its coding:

The major challenges facing the Museum at the start of the 21st century include: renovating and modernising the Museum, making the collections more accessible through digitalisation, carrying out research work aimed at sustainable development, undertaking closer cooperation with African partner institutions, enhancing the role of the Museum as an integral component of Belgium’s policy towards Africa and continuing to ensure its international influence.

The last word, as the first shot in its colonial policy dating back to the Wannsee conference in 1885, is “continuing to ensure [Belgium’s] international influence.” All else, including the repressive silences of racial reference today, is in service to that end. As it always was.


One response to “DIS-ARMING CHARM by David Theo Goldberg”

  1. Lorenconog says:

    Did you know that USA and Europe blocked Wikileaks? What do you think about it?

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