In 1897, King Leopold II of Belgium set up an international exhibition with fake villages, known as ‘human zoos’, portraying people from now DR Congo as ‘primitive’ and in need of a well-wisher to ‘civilize’ them. He had established the Congo Free State by brutally seizing the African landmass as his personal possession, unlike other European countries which controlled their colonies politically. As his fame was diminishing in Belgium and other parts of Europe, the ruthless king created the exhibition as a colonial propaganda instrument, to attract investors and win the hearts of Belgians. In 1898, the temporary exhibition- which had attracted more than one million people in just six months- became the first permanent museum of the Congo. Eventually, seven of the 267 Congolese men, women, and children who were forcefully taken to perform in the zoos died and were buried in the cemetery that was strictly reserved for the then 'immoral', such as sex workers. Belgium would later colonise Congo, and add then ‘Ruanda-Urundi’ (Rwanda and Burundi now) to the ‘Congo Belge’ territory Now the AfricaMuseum, the institution located in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, has only two percent of their collection on public display, while the rest of the looted or gifted historical archives, cultural artefacts, and human remains that amount to three kilometres remain away from public sight. “Everything passes, except the past” is written in bold right at the entrance of the exhibition to emphasize the museum’s role in keeping the history. “Belgium bringing civilization to the Congo” is also written right below a statue, but it is almost covered with a semi-transparent veil designed by Congolese and Belgian artists Aimé Mpane and Jean-Pierre Müller, respectively. The AfricaMuseum, now marking 125 years of existence and five years after the renovation, has made changes after extensive criticism for being racist and colonial. Some of the changes they have made include removing controversial statues that stereotypically represent black people from the permanent exhibition. In this Q&A, Bart Ouvry, the Managing Director of the museum explains more about ‘decolonizing’ the museum, its relationship with Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy (Inteko y’umuco), and more. Excerpts: Many activists and institutions have called the museum, colonial, sexist, and racist. What is being done differently to change the narrative? I think we have gone a long way with the renovation, and since the renovation, we have done quite some work. I think that is the essential answer to the question. We are a museum about issues of which some are controversial, but that does not necessarily make our museum controversial. The issues at hand, colonialism, the colonial past, and even some of the other issues such as the use of resources, climate change, and biodiversity, touch many delicate and controversial issues, but that should not make our institution controversial. If we take a critical approach to ourselves on our own history in a participatory manner, I think we have already gone a long way. It's a process, you can always do better. And I think over the past five years, we have seen, for example, the interaction with the diaspora and African partners increase. When I go into the museum, most of the time I see people of African descent who visit the museum. I believe that many Africans increasingly feel at home with us, and I think we are moving from a museum, which was in its past an instrument for Colonial propaganda, but moving more and more to a museum, that is working not just on Africa, but with Africans. You have talked about ‘decolonizing’ the museum before. What does it mean in the context of the AfricaMuseum? Decoloniality is a state of mind. It means that while very often based on our expertise, based on our past, we have a tendency to impose our views, to impose our ways of looking at problems, and to come up with solutions before having a full discussion. We should be open to what others tell us. And certainly when, for example, organising a scientific project in Africa, it's very important to take into account, right from the beginning when setting up a research project, the experiences and the knowledge of our partners in Africa. How is ‘decolonizing’ the museum going so far? Well, maybe that is for others to say. I believe we're making progress. But you cannot erase decades of history, and you cannot erase inequality in one movement. One of the ways to do it, for example, is to increase the number of people of African descent who are active in the museum. It is by changing the way we define our project to do it in the context of co-creation. This is now the rule for exhibitions for temporary, even when reviewing the permanent exhibition. But it's something on which you need to check. You have to evaluate. It's not just saying yes, we have the intention of doing it. You have to check whether you're doing well. I believe we're making progress. Yes. There is a growing movement in favor of colonial reparations. What's your view on that? Reparation is a matter of reconciliation and re-appropriation by Africans of their own culture, which will never be experienced in the same way as 100 years ago. You can never erase history, but I believe there is eagerness from Africans in Africa but also from people of African descent and also an interest, a growing interest from Europeans to get to know African culture and to understand what is behind the cultural objects in our collections. Only 2 percent of the museum’s collection is in the permanent exhibition and 98 percent is in the reserves. How do you feel about the restitution of the objects and archives? I believe that restitution is a matter of making sure that people in Africa are in a position to appropriate their own culture. So it's, it's a matter which is to be looked at in a more holistic way. In our legislation now, what has been stolen should be returned. Of course, how you define that, needs to be looked at by the common scientific commission to be established by both our countries, and after their advice, there should be a decision from both governments. But certainly, the intention of the Belgian government is a go-ahead on restitution, but to do it in a bilateral framework. What’s the relationship between the African Museum and the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy? There have been a number of exchanges; we organized a virtual visit to the museum. We did it during COVID. I’m planning to go to Rwanda next year to strengthen relations with my Rwandan counterpart. There have been a number of exchanges and proposals but in terms of heritage studies and cooperation, certainly there is a much more which could be done. We also have an excellent partnership in geology. I believe it's a cooperation which was very appreciated. We are in the process of negotiating a new project to continue this cooperation. Are there any special programs that run that artists or historians benefit from or can benefit from? Well, I think the main the main opportunity is artistic residences. Each year we have several residences, which we offer for artists who come to the museum and then work here studying parts of the collection, making use of our library, being in contact with scientists, and I believe that for Rwandan artists, it would be good to apply for these residences. Those are competitive procedures. So there's an independent jury and they select the most successful project.