The director of the Tervuren Museum wants to accelerate the search for provenance

In June 2022, Belgium adopted a law on the restitution of objects stolen or purchased during colonization. What are the consequences for the museum?

What is important in this law is that decisions will be taken after an opinion from a mixed commission comprising Congolese and Belgians. We must avoid unilateral decisions, which may involve symbolic violence and colonial thinking. We want to decide on this issue together. As a museum, we will carry out what is decided at a political level between the two governments, following a scientific council. Our commitment is to intensify research into the provenance of our collections. Our responsibility is also to communicate the nature of the issues and to be transparent about the reality of the collections we house. This is what we are doing with the “ReThinking Collections” exhibition (until September 29).

What are the restitution criteria?

In the law, it is said that what has been ” stolen “ must be returned. However, nuances must be made because there are different possibilities. A stolen item may have been obtained in different ways, through violence, theft or manipulation. Basically, it is the scientists who, bilaterally, will specify the criteria. Alongside Belgian law, there are also Congolese demands. As part of our provenance research, we work with Congolese scientists who come here, but who also do provenance research in Congo. Their concern is very often to find objects that allow us to document the culture of a certain community. With the ambition to cover the entire territory. As a result of this interest, we can very well imagine that certain pieces whose provenance is not controversial, because there has been no theft or manipulation, would be the subject of long-term loans. The goal, ultimately, is to allow the populations of Congo and elsewhere to have access to these objects and above all to be able to reappropriate this culture which was taken from them, because the colonial project was a non-existent project. only of domination and exploitation, but also of cultural, religious and spiritual influence.

The collections you house at the AfricaMuseum include no less than 120,000 objects. How many of them do you estimate could be returned?

There, I am not going to get ahead of myself, because it is a decision that is not ours. Some people have made estimates, but it’s too early to say anything. This will also depend largely on the vision of our interlocutor which is the Congo.

Do colonial archives provide information on the real conditions of acquisition?

As we show in the exhibition, colonial archives often very explicitly document the violence that took place. The Nkisi Nkonde statue, the first piece seen in the exhibition, was stolen during a punitive expedition in 1878. A few weeks later, the traditional leader of this community already officially requested its restitution. These archives can also be supplemented by interviews with the descendants of dispossessed people who testify to what happened. Our goal as a museum is to document the facts. We are a museum and also an institution which maintains scientific cooperation in twenty African countries. For us, it is crucial to confirm our legitimacy as a scientific institution by taking this question of provenance research and restitution seriously. Our credibility and legitimacy are at stake to be able to work not only in Africa, but also with Africans. For us, this is an opportunity more than an obstacle.

With the exhibition “ReThinking Collections”, you show that reflections on collections go beyond the colonial period…

Indeed. We can see a testimony from Anne-Marie Bouttiaux who was chief ethnographer of the Royal Museum for Central Africa and who did her doctoral thesis and carried out research in Ivory Coast. She explains how difficult it was for her to buy certain pieces. His arrival in an Ivorian village could arouse tension and jealousy. Certain pieces purchased were subject to prohibitions which were then transgressed. It is outside the colonial context that Anne-Marie Bouttiaux was interested in objects and practices that are accompanied by social and spiritual rules. Purchasing these items can be problematic. Taking a step back, she says that she would have preferred not to work on masks, but rather to concentrate her research on practical and everyday objects that were less spiritually marked. Our job is to look critically, to question the provenance of all our collections whatever the period.

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