Georgia College Front Page

History students confront dubious past of Brussels museum

 

Four history students are back from a grant-funded, eye-opening trip to Brussels, Belgium—where they visited a newly-renovated museum that’s reinterpreting its mishandling of the Congo.

For many decades, Belgium turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by its former monarch, King Leopold II. World outcry and humanitarian concerns caused officials to rethink exhibits at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels—which at one time included live Congolese in display cages. The museum was refurbished recently to reflect brutality that took the lives of more than 10 million Congolese in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries.

“This was a great opportunity for our students,” said History Chair and Professor Dr. Aran MacKinnon. “I wanted them to see the ways African history has been misrepresented and how that’s changed.”

“As our students become globally-connected citizens of the world,” he said, “it’s important for them to have a sense of Africa as a series of people and states who have their own integrity.”

MacKinnon took four students on tour of the revamped museum—thanks to a $10,000 grant from Payne Fund Inc. Philip Bolton, a member of the Payne Fund, joined the group on the trip, lending his knowledge of the area and Africa.

MacKinnon and Bolton met several years ago through a Georgia College museum studies student, who curated an exhibit using Bolton’s African art collection. From there, MacKinnon researched and wrote an article on Bolton’s Grandmother—Frances Payne Bolton—who traveled to the Congo as a congresswoman in 1955.

These connections led to the grant, making it possible for students to go on an otherwise cost-prohibitive trip. Several had never been abroad, and MacKinnon had never been to Brussels.


Seniors Joshua Astarita and Brianna Davis in front of the Royal Palace of Brussels in Brussels, Belgium.

Senior history major Brianna Davis of Rockford, Illinois, said the trip was an “unbelievable” chance for her to learn how museum coordinators represent African artifacts to the public. She’d like to teach colonialism and African history someday.

“Seeing the Museum of Central Africa,” Davis said, “is something that kids like me could only dream of. I grew up pretty poor. We just don’t get these opportunities. So, it was life-changing.”

Davis enjoyed seeing the museum on a personal tour when the museum was closed. It was interesting to be face-to-face with lessons learned in class. She hopes to pass on this experience to her own students one day, inspiring them to explore history and question the way the past is portrayed.

Leopold II colonized the Congo Free State in 1885. But there was nothing ‘free’ about it.

Congolese were killed, maimed and enslaved—as Leopold looted what would be in today’s numbers $1.1 billion in ivory, gold, diamonds and rubber.

“Leopold said he was doing things to civilize and uplift people,” MacKinnon said. “The museum epitomized this imperial mentality and, by the late 1990s, it had become an embarrassment to Belgium.”


Davis, junior Cassandra Gill, senior Sylvester Clark and Astarita.

The museum was renovated with a “cutting edge” approach, making its displays more appropriate and progressive. To show sensitivity regarding its Congo heritage, Belgians revised information through historically-correct lenses. The old imperial building was extended at a subterranean level to include active research centers, labs, studios and new exhibits.


Sylvester Clark

One statue is still there—a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of King Leopold II with two African children gazing at him in familial affection. It was seen by the world as offensive, given how Leopold crippled the Congo. Today, the statue gives students and visitors the chance to “grapple with this ambiguous legacy,” MacKinnon said.

Some Belgians argue European colonialism had positive effects on African nations, as well, like connecting Africa to global economies. But MacKinnon wants students to see the injustices and how nations can reconsider the past and interpret history more accurately. 

Sylvester Clark of Milledgeville is a senior history major, who wants to teach. Being from a small town, studying abroad was not something Clark had experienced. Most surreal was seeing a Medieval castle in Ghent. 

“I’m not really used to going to big cities, being on planes,” he said. “For me to have this experience people usually don’t have—it was great.”

Clark was surprised by an exhibit, which once displayed live Congolese but was now empty. Although the museum has made strides, he said, some areas still need work. He felt they were still trying to erase this uncomfortable aspect of history.
 
Clark wants to encourage his own students someday to experience the world and work to uncover true history. That way, he said, they’ll move on to “create those ripples to create waves to change the world.”


Cassandra Gill

This overseas journey was a first for Cassandra Gill of Augusta too. The junior history major pinched herself to make sure the all-expense paid trip was real. She was excited to study something so controversial. It was a great introduction to her future as a museum curator.

Gill isn’t currently taking an African history course. So, she had less knowledge of the Royal Museum than others upon arrival. This made everything feel new and surprising. Gill was impressed by the openness of directors, who spoke about remaining flaws. She returned home more critical of museums and unafraid to examine problems.

Learning about African culture and natural resources, Gill asked herself, “Why isn’t Africa dominating global politics?” She wants to learn more about Africa’s complex history.

“I’ve never left the country before. Standing on the street and not hearing English and feeling like a total fish out of water—it was actually a great experience,” she said.


History Chair Dr. Aran MacKinnon and Astarita.

Joshua Astarita of Marietta is a senior history and liberal studies major with a concentration in culture, religion and society. An aspiring teacher, he enjoyed seeing the African art acquired by Leopold.

“It was spectacular. I had never been to Europe before,” Astarita said. “We went with such a good group, it was just such a memorable experience being with like-minded peers. No matter what we did, no matter where we went, it was a new adventure.”

Astarita was excited to taste Belgium waffles and fries. Students also sampled Belgium chocolate and beer. They visited the European Union Parliament building and saw Medieval architecture and cathedrals in Ghent.

MacKinnon said each student contributed to the trip. They developed their intellectual curiosity and helped shaped the dialogue. They’ll present their adventures and what they learned by writing reports, making posters and giving presentations on campus and at undergraduate conferences.

“This was, for me professionally, an incredible opportunity,” MacKinnon said. “It brought together what I really believe is the core mission. What I enjoy most about Georgia College is the chance to work with great students, take them through these transformative experiences, connect it to an academic passion, and just see them light up with amazement and delight at what’s possible.”

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