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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2015

Ohio State University


This article argues for a thematic and periodization shift in the approach to the history of Congo's decolonization. It demonstrates how debates about cultural heritage and demands for cultural restitution became important aspects of Congolese interpretations of decolonization, and argues that they played an important role in the national and international politics that were central to the construction of the cultural sovereignty of the postcolonial Zairian state.

Political Debates in the 1960s and Beyond
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Research for this article was funded by an Annenberg Fellowship and a Nicholls Felowship from the University of Pennsylvania as well as an Arts and Sciences Research Grant of the Ohio State University. The Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas in Austin generously provided me with a fellowship during which I developed an early version of this article. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the ‘Independence and Decolonization’ symposium, organized by the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas in Austin in 2010, and at the AEGIS conference, ‘(Un)disciplined Encounters: Science as a Terrain of Postcolonial Interaction in Brussels’ (2010). I would like to thank Franco Barchiesi, Lee Cassanelli, Steven Pierce, Alice Conklin, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback. All translations from French or Dutch by the author. Author's email:


1 Notre Kongo (Léopoldville), 3 Apr. 1960. The Museum of the Belgian Congo was renamed ‘Royal Museum for Central Africa’ (RMCA) after Congolese independence, but is often referred to as ‘Tervuren’, after its location.

2 Cooper, F., ‘Possibility and constraint: African independence in historical perspective’, The Journal of African History, 49:2 (2008), 176CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 On France's invention of the historical category of decolonization, see Shepard, T., The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France  (Ithaca, NY, 2006)Google Scholar.

4 Hargreaves, J. D., Prelude to the Partition of West Africa (London, 1963), 244Google Scholar. Older scholarship depicts decolonization as a political or economic story focused on political leadership and nationalist movements. More recent scholarship has included the role of women, rural populations, youth, and labor movements in the struggles for independence, and studies the varied meanings accorded to decolonization and sovereignty.

5 See, for example, Lemarchand, R., Political Awakening in the Congo (Berkeley, CA, 1964)Google Scholar; Stengers, J., ‘La Belgique et le Congo: politique coloniale et décolonisation’, Histoire de la Belgique contemporaine, 1914–1970 (Bruxelles, 1975), 391440Google Scholar; Vellut, J.-L., ‘De dekolonisatie van Kongo 1945–1965’, in Manning, A. F., Balthazar, H., and De Vries, J. (eds.), Algemeene Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, Part 15: De Nieuwste Tijd (Haarlem, 1982), 401–14Google Scholar; and Young, C., Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence (Princeton, 1965)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. More recent articles, based on the African Studies Association forum on the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence, are in African Studies Review, 55:1 (2012).Google Scholar

6 An exception is Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, who describes the period of 1967–8 as the ‘second independence movement’. See The Congo from Leopold to Kabila (London, 2002).Google Scholar

7 I am inclined to side with David Newbury, seeing it as a continuing process even today. Newbury, D., ‘The continuing process of decolonization in the Congo: fifty years later’, African Studies Review, 55:1 (2012), 131–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 The interpretation of heritage as cultural patrimony (‘national’ heritage, or patrimoine) emerged following the French Revolution. See Choay, F., The Invention of the Historic Monument (Cambridge, 2001)Google Scholar.

9 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B., Destination Culture (Berkeley, 1998), 149–76Google Scholar; Lowenthal, D., The Heritage Crusade (Cambridge, 1998), 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Strother, Z., ‘First word’, African Arts, 45:3 (2012), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Jewsiewicki, B. and Mudimbe, V. Y., ‘Meeting the challenge of legitimacy: post-independence black Africa and post-Soviet European states’, Daedalus, 124:3 (1995), 191207Google Scholar. The concept of cultural heritage has received limited attention to date in African historiography. For examples, see Schmidt, P. R. and McIntosh, R. J. (eds.), Plundering Africa's Past: Monuments, Deities and Money (Bloomington, IN, 1996)Google Scholar; and Rowlands, M. and de Jong, F. (eds.), Reclaiming Heritage: Alternative Imaginaries of Memory in West Africa (Walnut Creek, 2007)Google Scholar. Recently, African art historians have started exploring heritage as a reflexive, historical concept, open to African interpretations. See Probst, P., Osogbo and the Art of Heritage (Bloomington, IN, 2011)Google Scholar; and Probst, P. (ed.), ‘Special Issue: iconoclash in the age of heritage’, African Arts, 45:3 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Schildkrout, E. and Keim, C. A. (eds.), The Scramble for Art in Central Africa (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar.

13 For a more detailed history of this process, see Van Beurden, S.The value of culture: Congolese art and the promotion of Belgian colonialism (1945–1959)’, History and Anthropology, 24:4 (2013), 472–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Aside from the Musée de la Vie Indigène (Museum of Indigenous Life) in Leopoldville, others existed in regional centers such as Luluabourg and Coquilhatville and in the mining capital of Elizabethville.

15 Cameron, E. L., ‘Coming to terms with heritage: Kuba Ndop and the art school of Nsheng’, African Arts, 45:3 (2012), 2841CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vansina, J., Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1860–1960 (Madison, WI, 2010)Google Scholar.

16 AA (Africa Archive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brussels) COPAMI (La Commission pour la protection des arts et métiers indigènes), portefeuille 4797, Folder 5/2, Rapport 57.

19 The first appeared in Notre Kongo, in late March, repeated on 3 Apr. 1960, and 10 Dec. 1960. Le Drapeau Rouge, the newspaper of the Belgian Communist Party, picked it up in its 26 Mar. 1960 edition, as did the journal Pourquoi Pas? on 1 Apr. 1960.

20 Sabakinu, K., ‘La spécificité de la colonisation et de la décolonisation du Zaïre’, in de Villers, G. (ed.), Belgique/Zaïre (Bruxelles, 1994), 2739Google Scholar; Vanthemsche, G., Congo: De Impact van de Kolonie op België (Tielt, 2007), 211–13Google Scholar. The Belgian state likely dragged its feet deliberately so its former colonial enterprises could restructure and rearrange their finances. Foutry, V. and Neckers, J., Als een wereld zo groot waar uw vlag staat geplant: Kongo 1885–1960 (Leuven, 1986)Google Scholar.

21 Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) Files, Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre (IMNZ), Folder IMNZ-MRAC Apport, Lucien Cahen, ‘Geschiedenis’, undated.

22 Lucien Cahen (1912–82), a geologist, became director in 1958. ‘In memoriam’, Africa-Tervuren, 28:4 (1982), 3–4.

23 RMCA, Files IMNZ, Folder IMNZ-MRAC Apport, Cahen, ‘Contentieux mémorandum’, undated (early 1960s).

24 Ibid. Underlining in original.

25 Vantemsche, Congo, 213; Foutry and Neckers, Als een Wereld, 130.

26 Staff at Tervuren had been apprehensive about this exhibition, rightly worrying that it would again draw attention to the debate about the contentieux. Interview with Huguette Van Geluwe, Oostende, 28 Dec. 2010.

27 RMCA IMNZ Files, Box 5, Folder J. Powis de TenBossche, letter from Cahen to Powis, 12 Dec. 1969.

28 RMCA IMNZ Files, Box 5, Folder J. Powis de Ten Bossche, letter from Cahen to President Mobutu, 10 Oct. 1970.

29 Ibid. I refer to shipments of objects from Tervuren to the IMNZ by the neutral term ‘transfers’.

30 The Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo (IMNC) was within months renamed the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre (IMNZ). The institute was envisioned as an overarching structure for all museums in Congo that absorbed a number of smaller former colonial museums. The main seat in Kinshasa would collect anthropological and art objects for a proposed flagship museum in Kinshasa, which was never built.

31 IMNZ, Rapport, 1970–1 (Kinshasa, 1972).

32 Cahen would spend three months annually at the IMNC. The Belgian Joseph Cornet, a Christian friar teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, was appointed adjunct director. They were joined by four Belgian curators and a group of young Zairians, hired as scientific staff or assistants with the intention of educating them to take over the reins.

33 On art museums as tools for the creation of citizenship, see Duncan, C., Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London, 1995)Google Scholar.

34 Interview Célestin Badi-Banga ne Mwine, Kinshasa, 18 May 2006; IMNZ, Rapport, 1970–1 and 1971–2.

35 RMCA IMNZ Files, Box 5, Folder ICOM/UNESCO, ‘Note sur un projet de Centre de Formation muséologique en Afrique’, Paris. 17 Dec. 1970.

36 A good overview of the history of authenticité is still lacking. Bob White has discussed the ideology in the context of state-sponsored musical and dance performances. See White, B. W., Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu's Zaire (Durham, NC, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and ‘L'incroyable machine d'authenticité: l'animation politique et l'usage public de la culture dans le Zaire de Mobutu’, Anthropologie et Sociétés, 30:2 (2006), 43–63. Shorter introductions also in Dunn, K. C., Imagining the Congo: The International Relations of Identity (New York, 2003), 108–20ICrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mukulumanya, W. N. Z., ‘Authenticité: mythe ou identité?’, Authenticité et développement (Paris, 1982), 6596Google Scholar; and Ndaywel è Nziem, Nouvelle histoire du Congo: des origins à la République Démocratique (Bruxelles, 2009), 534–43. Most of this work refers to authenticité in urban settings. Little work exists on its impact in rural areas. Roberts, A. F., ‘“Authenticity” and ritual gone awry in Mobutu's Zaire’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 24:2 (1994), 134–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar is an exception. Additionally, the literature generally fails to mention attempts to use Zaire's traditional arts in this discourse, despite Kenneth Lee Adelman's recognition in 1975 of their role. See Adelman, K. L., ‘The recourse to authenticity and Negritude in Zaire’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 13:1 (1975), 134–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 White, ‘L'incroyable machine’, 53.

38 Jewsiewicki and Mudimbe, ‘Meeting the challenge’, 191–208.

39 Zairization was followed by phases of ‘Radicalization’ and ‘Retrocession’ in which some companies were returned to previous owners under certain conditions.

40 Archives Nationales (AN) Kinshasa, Files MPR, Address by Mobutu to opening session of 1973 AICA conference in Kinshasa, ‘Compte Rendu in Extenso n. 3- AICA’.

41 Clifford, J., The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1988), 244Google Scholar.

42 Interviews with Eugénie Nzembele Safiri , Kinshasa, 31 Aug. 2011; Shaje A. Tshiluila, Kinshasa, 14 Sept. 2011; Célestin Badi-Banga ne Mwine, Kinshasa, 18 May 2006 and 2 Sept. 2011.

43 Interview with Kama Funzi Mudindambi, Kinshasa, 10 May 2006.

44 Botembele, B. E., La politique culturelle en République du Zaïre (Paris, 1975), 41Google Scholar.

45 For more on these exhibitions, see Van Beurden, S., Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture (Athens, OH: Fall 2015 [forthcoming])Google Scholar.

46 White, “L'incroyable machine’, 49.

47 Bayart, J. F., The Illusion of Cultural Identity (Chicago, 2005), 39Google Scholar; Mbembe, A., On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA, 2001), 119Google Scholar; Turner, T., ‘Clouds of smoke: cultural and psychological modernization in Zaire’, in Gran, G. (ed.), Zaire: The Political Economy of Underdevelopment (New York, 1979), 6983Google Scholar.

48 Schatzberg, M. G., Political Legitimacy in Middle Africa (Bloomington, IN, 2001), 135Google Scholar.

49 Badi-Banga ne Mwine, C., ‘Sortir du sinistre culturel’, Quelle Politique Culturelle pour la Troisième République du Zaïre? (Kinshasa, 1993), 117–24Google Scholar; interview with Shaje A. Tshiluila; interview with Célestin Badi-Banga ne Mwine.

50 Merryman, J. H., ‘Two ways of thinking about cultural property’, The American Journal of International Law, 80:4 (1996), 831–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Greenfield, J., The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge, 1989), 259Google Scholar; Vrdoljak, A. F., International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects (Cambridge, 2007), 207Google Scholar.

52 Vrdoljak, International Law, 207.

53 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B., ‘World heritage and cultural economics’, in Karp, I. and Kratz, C. A. et al. (eds.), Museum Frictions (Durham, 2006) 161202CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lowenthal, Heritage Crusade, 242.

54 RMCA IMNZ Files, Ipoto, Mémoire explicatif, Distr. Générale, A/9199, Nations Unies, 5 Nov. 1973, 2–3.

55 RMCA IMNZ Files, Projet de Résolution, Distr. Générale, A/9199, Nations Unies, 5 Nov. 1973.

56 RMCA IMNZ Files, Panama Representative to the General Assembly, Provisional Verbatim Record of the 2206th Meeting of the 26th Assembly, 18 Dec. 1973.

57 It should be noted, however, that Belgium did not ratify the UNESCO 1970 convention until 1999, and was thus under no obligation to abide by it.

58 A. Burnet, ‘Le Musée de Tervuren collabore avec celui de Kinshasa sans être privé par lui de pièces essentielles’, Le Soir (Bruxelles), 8 Nov. 1973.

59 RMCA IMNZ Files, Folder IMNZ- MRAC Apport, Cahen, ‘Geschiedenis’.

60 RMCA IMNZ Files, ‘Box Restitutie RDC 1970–1980’, Folder 2, letter from Cahen to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 28 Oct. 1974.

61 On 15 March 1971, the state of Zaire instated law 71-016 to protect cultural goods, including monuments, sites, and art production, declaring it illegal to export any object considered part of the cultural heritage of the state. See République du Zaïre – IMNZ, IMNZ rapport 1970–1971 (Kinshasa, 1972), 10–20. Unfortunately, application of this law was erractic at best. On the relation between the two countries in this period, see de Villiers, G., De Mobutu à Mobutu: Trente ans de relations Belgique-Zaïre (Brussels, 1995), 63–5Google Scholar; Diaïte, I., ‘La coopération belgo-zaïroise: le maquillage d'une domination’, in Baba Kaké, I. (ed.), Conflit belgo-zaïrois: fondements historiques, politiques, économiques et culturels (Paris, 1990), 135–64Google Scholar.

62 RMCA IMNZ Files, ‘Box Restitutie RDC 1970–1980’, Folder 2, Position Zairoise au colloque d'UNESCO à Venise, Apr. 1976.

63 RMCA IMNZ Files, Folder IMNZ-MRAC Apport, Notes Cahen, undated.

64 RMCA IMNZ Files, Folder IMNZ-MRAC Apport, ‘Confidential Bope’, undated.

65 The statue probably represents King Mbop a'Kyeen who died at the end of the nineteenth century. See Binkley, D. A. and Darish, P., Kuba (Milan, 2009), 31–4Google Scholar, and 120; and Vansina, J., ‘Ndop: royal statues among the Kuba’, in Fraser, D. and Cole, H. M. (eds.), African Art and Leadership (Madison, 1972), 4153Google Scholar

66 Bayart, Illusion, 26.

67 RMCA IMNZ Files, ‘Box Restitutie RDC, 1970–1980’, Folder 2, List of objects belonging to the MVI, signed by Albert Maesen and Jean Vanden Bossche, 11 Aug. 1960; and Folder ‘Contentieux + Historique’, letter Maesen to Alma Robinson, 18 Apr. 1978.

68 It appears the museum passed into the hands of the Congolese state upon the departure of its director Jean Vanden Bossche in 1961.

69 RMCA IMNZ Files, ‘Box Restitutie RDC 1970–1980’, Folder 1e Expedition, letter from Cahen to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 Feb. 1977 and notes from phone conversation between M. Jaenen and A. Maesen, 10 Mar. 1977. Underlining in original.

70 IRSAC had branches in Zaire and Rwanda. Research activities consisted mostly of linguistic and social anthropology. See Vansina, J.Living with Africa (Madison, WI, 1994)Google Scholar.

71 Van den Audenaerde, T., ‘Het Museum te Tervuren: een historisch overzicht’, Africa Museum Tervuren (Tervuren, 1998), 1920Google Scholar.

72 For a complete annotated list of these 114 objects, see Wastiau, B., Congo-Tervuren: Aller-Retour (Tervuren, 2000), 1554Google Scholar.

73 Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo (IMNC) Kinshasa, Unmarked folder, letter A. Lebrun, Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa, 15 June 1982.

74 Interview with Huguette Van Geluwe and interview with Shaje A. Tshiluila.

75 Mathur, S., India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display (Berkeley, CA, 2007), 139Google Scholar.

76 Geluwe, H. Van, ‘Belgium's contribution to the Zairian cultural heritage’, Museum, 31:1 (1979), 32–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Ironically, one of the archival boxes in the RMCA archives holding material concerning the shipments has restitutie (restitution) written on it in large letters.

77 Interview with Nestor Seeuws, Ghent, 5 Oct. 2005, and personal correspondence with Boris Wastiau, 28 Feb. and 6 Mar. 2012. In 2000, Wastiau, then a curator at the RMCA, devoted a small volume to the 114 objects that came from the Tervuren collections. Wastiau, Congo-Tervuren.

78 Bhabha, H., The Location of Culture (London, 2004), 51–2Google Scholar.

79 Bayart, Illusion, 71–7.

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