Forget King Leopold’s Ghost. There Are Still Skeletons in His Closet

It would take a determined visitor to the Royal Museum for Central Africa to locate the life-sized likeness of one of history’s most brutal colonial rulers carved from ivory. The statue of Belgium‘s King Leopold II, created at the height of his plunder in the Congo, is discreetly placed at the back of a cabinet in the dark corners of a temporary exhibition on the Congo River. Harder to hide away are the statues built into the alcoves of the museum’s entrance hall, where the bust of the late monarch once stood. Europeans in gilded robes cradle naked African children above plaques which extol “Belgium Bringing Civilization to Congo.” As the museum on the leafy fringes of Brussels prepares to shut down for its first major renovation since the Congo’s independence in 1960, planners are faced with the difficult task of trying to modernize an institution where reminders of the country’s violent colonial past are etched in its very walls. “On every pillar there is a double L for Leopold – you cannot just act as if we’re only dealing with contemporary Africa,” Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director, tells TIME. Decades after their colonies gained independence, many European nations still grapple with — or attempt to obscure — their bloody imperial histories. State apologies are rare, and many institutions simply chose to ignore their connection to unsavory pasts, says J.P. Daughton, associate professor of modern European history at Stanford University. “The most striking thing about memories of colonialism in the Quai Branly in Paris and the Victoria and Albert in London – two museums that hold vast amounts of art accumulated during the Age of Empire – are the silences,” he says. Of all Europe’s colonial histories, the slaughter in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was unique in its aims. While the exploitation of much of Africa, Asia and Latin America happened under a flimsy guise of state-sponsored enlightenment, the Congo was Leopold’s personal property. From 1885 to 1908, he ran it as a factory staffed with………….

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