Ever since it reopened three years ago after a long (and long overdue) overhaul, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (or AfricaMuseum for short) in Tervuren (Belgium), has moved its focus away from Belgium’s colonial past in the region, and more towards the peoples and cultures, customs and traditions that lived and live along the Congo basin, and in what used to be Congo Belge / Belgian Congo.
Sure, there are still some “neutrally scientific” exhibits on geology and biology (too many stuffed animals, really), but cultural artifacts from the past are now contextualized in their continuing tradition and role in today’s communities. Musical instruments, masks, traditional tools are no longer oddities to be gawked at, but representatives and examples of living, vibrant cultures today.
Specific attention goes to current forms of cultural expression, from music and dance to sculpture and painting. Throughout the museum, numerous paintings of Congolese artists (be it from the country or from the diaspora) pop out from the wood paneling of the rooms, with their vibrant colors, often quite explicit social satire, and clear cartoon influence.
There is also a separate exhibit dedicated to Congolese comics. In a country with many peoples, each with their own languages, a form of semi-visual communication is vital to bring across messages or simply provide entertainment. Religious and cultural organizations use comics (most often in French) to educate their audiences, while popular magazines and pamphlets in Lingala and other local languages have been booming since the 1960s.
It is interesting and encouraging to see that a renowned ethnological institution pays homage to what may be considered an ephemeral and fleeting form of culture. However, judging from the examples in the exhibit, it may need to make sure it stays up to date with current evolutions, lest the presentation becomes a mere salute to a fad from the second half of the 20th Century.
More information : Royal Museum For Central Africa
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