Belgium is taking a major step forward in returning items looted during colonial times. The authorities have just presented a new legal framework. The Belgians no longer want items that have been forcibly acquired, resulting in the return of thousands of works by the Democratic Republic of Congo.
From our correspondent in Brussels,
From now on, the works are classified into three categories: the first category: they were acquired legitimately and in this case they can remain in Belgium. Let us imagine a work recently done by a Congolese artist and sold directly to the museum. There, no problem.
Second category: the object was obtained in a violent manner, for example during a looting. From now on, Belgium will make these works directly available in the DRC.
“Once it has been determined that this has been acquired illegally, ownership of this piece will immediately return to the Congolese government,” said Guido Gryseels, director general of the Royal Museum of Central Africa, the largest collection of African art in Europe. Then it is up to the Congolese government to decide whether the part should stay here or whether it should be returned to Congo and when it stays here, under what conditions. But it is up to the Congo to decide this. We do not want to introduce criteria or conditions for returning a part. It is entirely up to the Congo to decide. ”
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Great work to determine the acquisition of objects
Third and final category: objects whose origin is not exactly located. In this case, the coins pass from the public to the private domain of the state to make them alienable. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, they may be returned.
To conduct research on the history of objects, to find out how they were acquired, this is a titanic task. Keep in mind that at the Royal Museum of Central Africa, commonly known as the Tervuren Museum, about 85,000 objects come from the former Belgian Congo. It is therefore an enormous amount of work waiting for the experts to decide on their acquisition.
“I work with very specific objects, especially Yaka masks,” explains Placide Mumbembele, a professor at the University of Kinshasa who lives at the Royal Museum of Central Africa to study the origins of the objects on display. To do this, I first consult the registration register for all collections in the Tervuren Museum, therefore since the entire colonial era. Once I have found the mask, I check who has collected it and in what year … Once I have received the name of the person, I can go to the archives to understand his journey: how he lived in Congo, the context in which he received this mask. Is it by force? Through a purchase? Was it a gift given? It is a job that is not so simple. “
This restoration work will therefore take several years. But the first objects could return to the Democratic Republic of Congo as early as next year, on the occasion of the anniversary of independence.
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