Remembering Empire in Bristol and Brussels

I was recently part of a small delegation of historians from the University of Bristol involved in a trip to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels. The purpose of the visit was to consider the ways that imperialism and its legacies have been approached in the museum, and the difficulties of publicly engaging with this divisive history. We were also reflecting on the sad story of Bristol’s British Empire and Commonwealth Museum that ran from 2002 until 2008, a story which continues because of some on going controversies. Following its closure the large collection amassed by the Museum’s staff was acquired by Bristol City Council, who have a huge quantity of archival material to sort through, as well as artifacts to preserve. How should these materials, originally acquired to be part of the country’s only collection dedicated to the history of empire, be integrated in to Bristol’s existing collections? How should these imperial objects be displayed in museums in, and largely about, Bristol? These are some difficult questions, and at Bristol Uni we have been running some events to spark ideas. But the elephant in the room is how should empire be remembered in Britain – particularly since some in the media pinpointed the reason behind the museum’s decline as a general British distaste for remembering the colonial past. Our trip to Brussels was to see how this bigger problem had been dealt with in a different post-Imperial context.

Museum for Central Africa

The Museum for Central Africa is housed in, to say the least, a grand building and it is situated in some dramatic grounds. Commissioned by Leopold II with money from his personal colony, the Congo Free State, with help from the Belgian tax-payers, it was founded in 1898 as the Congo Museum. The current buildings were constructed between 1904 and 1909. The intention was to showcase the supposed development of the colony to the Belgian public. Re-branded as the Museum for Central Africa in 1960s, following Congolese independence, the function of the museum has changed. It now sees its role as fostering greater public interest in the continent and facilitating scientific and humanities research involving scholarly partnerships between Europe and Africa. On our tour we got a sneak, behind-the-scenes insight into the incredible resources they have to achieve this. We had a privileged glimpse at a small fraction of their huge collection of Congolese masks and icons, and visited the archive of explorer Henry Morton Stanley (we got to see his luggage and rifle – I can’t think of more appropriate symbolic relics). The Museum is now going through another phase of renovation and the Museum’s management are again rethinking its role. Its imperial baggage is, in theory at least, gradually being shed. But despite these shifts and re-inventions, the imperial origins of the building continue to cast a long shadow.

Back Entrance


Today’s main entrance, that in its original incarnation was the entrance reserved for notables, confronts the visitor with irredeemably racist statues. Golden European figures with African children clinging to them stand looming over black statues of African men making crude symbols in the dirt, or attempting to make fire. This is the imperial ‘civilizing mission’ on display: it was a soothing justification for violent imperial expansion and exploitation, with Africans depicted as inherently backward and inferior. However, although I was stuck by this racist iconography, these statues do not really confront the visitor. The entrance hall in which they are located is simply where the tickets are sold before you enter the Museum proper. Despite its imposing architecture and decoration, it is a sort of ‘non-space’ which you merely pass through. A lobby, a corridor. This entrance is part of a general difficulty faced by the Museum. Its imperial heritage is literally built in to it. Leopold II’s double ‘L’ motif is absolutely everywhere. There are a number of controversial displays and artifacts that present an unreconstructed colonial view of Central Africa. There are plaques commemorating Belgian soldiers who died in the explorations prior to colonization.

Contrasting Statues

There has been a concerted effort to tell the story of Belgian colonialism in the Congo through the Museum, and it is an unavoidably brutal and unhappy story. There have also been specific events organized to deal with imperial memories and legacies, events involving the Belgian Congolese community. But this effort to decolonize the Museum sits awkwardly with many of the ethnographic displays and the building itself. In a sense, the Museum itself is an artifact of imperialism, and was in its time an agent of imperialism, and it needs to be framed as that to its visitors. This is not a matter of moving beyond its colonial history, but of consistently acknowledging and remembering that past; something that some of the curators at the Museum are striving for.

In Britain, the sorry fate of the only museum specifically set up to remember that past is a sign that the history of imperialism remains publicly unremembered. Although to listen to politicians on the right, you might be forgiven for thinking that the British public were constantly having the evils of empire forced down their throats. Conjuring up a mythical period of national post-colonial shame, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently argued that Britain needed to shed its guilt about empire and deal with countries on an equal footing. I don’t know when this time of brooding national guilt is supposed to have happened. The piecemeal, and ironically imperial-style, official apologies (and pressure for further apologies) for events in Britain’s colonial history would suggest that much of it remains unresolved. Moreover, quite contrary to these attempts to consign imperial history to the past as done and dealt with, recent studies of the compensation paid to former slave owners have shown the huge material impacts that imperialism had on Britain that have hitherto gone unacknowledged. We are constantly learning more about the legacies of empire, and about the violence of decolonization. Living in Bristol, the material legacy of imperialism is everywhere but, like the Museum for Central Africa, the history of imperialism is not always made apparent. Perhaps, Britain doesn’t need a museum specifically dedicated to empire because its traces are so ubiquitous in the built environment and implicitly in the collections that museums have (see for instance the tale of the stunning Burmese Buddha that greats you in the Asia section of the British Museum). Instead, perhaps the history of empire needs to be made clear and acknowledged in numerous sites.

There has been some academic debate over the impact of imperialism on British culture, with some arguing that Britons were ‘absent-minded’ imperialists. It’s not a position that I subscribe to, but regardless of this, Britain shouldn’t be an absent-minded post-imperial nation.

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