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Belgium to Return Hundreds of Objects Obtained Illegally from Democratic Republic of Congo

As debates about repatriation of cultural objects rage across Europe, Belgium said Saturday that it would transfer ownership of hundreds of objects from the Democratic Republic of Congo that were illegally added to its national holdings. The promise to do so is a major step in a country where conversations about histories of colonialism have historically been given less weight than in nations like France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s Secretary of State for Scientific Policy, said the country was focused on returning works from the holdings of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The institution is primarily devoted to objects from the Congo, and was opened in 1897 as a means for Leopold II to show the treasures and wealth he had accumulated through his colonization of that part of Africa.

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The works set to be returned represent only a fraction of that museum’s holdings. Of the 85,000 objects from the Congo in the museum’s collection, Belgium estimates that only 883 of them—fewer than 1 percent—came to the country illegally. Dermine said that 58 percent were obtained legally, and the remaining 40-plus percent of the collection required further research.

The Dutch-language publication De Standaard reported that the objects subject to a change in ownership came to Belgium between 1885, the year Leopold II declared himself the ruler of the Congo Free State, and 1960, the year that the Democratic Republic of Congo declared its independence from Belgium. In the intervening years, the citizens of the Congo endured various brutalities from Belgians who relied on their labor to support the rubber and chocolate industries.

Last July, the Belgium government suggested creating a commission focused on reckoning with colonialism, but the country’s parliament has yet to formally create one, causing frustration among experts. Earlier this month, curators and scholars in the country took matters into their own hands and drafted a document that calls for a full-scale repatriation of objects “closely linked to the conquest, occupation, and colonization of the immense Central African region.”

Dermine acknowledged this lack of progress on officials’ part, and he told Le Vif that he wanted to act soon. “We will take into account the recommendations of the parliamentary commission on the colonial past, but I want to move forward now,” he said. “I want there to be formal restitution commitments under this government, so by 2024.”

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