2 Views of Belgium: Africa & Magritte Museums in Brussels or old things in glass & surrealism

View from Congolese Belgian Cheri Sambaon the Africa Museum Father Belgium protects his children Leopold I, he of the private colonialsim Snake with rat, Africa Museum Africa Museum Piece by Oliver Goka Stuffed animals, Africa Museum IMG_2609Part of the fun of being an expat is the slow piecing together of observations, history and experience that create an understanding of a place that is not your own. And museums are a great place to start.

Next week, the infamous Africa Museum in Tervuren will close for at least 3 years (you notice I am not being specific with the timing, this is what living in Belgium teaches you pretty fast). Bruxellois friends had repeatedly told us the urban legend that when they were kids you could still see a stuffed Pygmy on display but we did not make it out to the museum ourselves until a few months ago and there were no Pygmys in sight.

There is no denying the museum is in dire need of renovation. The exhibits are dusty (literally) and very old-fashioned. The whole place has the quiet air of abandon. None of your interactive displays and 3D films bringing the past to life here. And that is precisely what makes it so interesting.

Although the some elements have disappeared over the last few years in preparation for the closure, there are still glimpses of Belgium’s uncomfortable relationship with its colonial past, primarily in the original statues. There are also some truly awful examples of the pillaging of the natural world that was so popular in Victorian times that reminded me of similar exhibits we saw in India.

The Magritte Museum on the other hand reflects a more confident, modern Belgium honouring perhaps its most famous son. You can’t spend any time in Brussels without becoming familiar with Magritte’s work by osmosis – his bowler hats and apples are dotted around the Sablon as Christmas decorations this year, for example. The beautifully presented museum makes it obvious that Belgians are highly creative and have a natural instinct to shy away from authority. The exhibition takes you on a journey from Magritte’s early days in advertising, which he hated, to his initial focus on the link between words and pictures, his brief impressionist period and his most iconic images. The audio tour is very good, using recordings of Magritte himself to impart such pearls as the fact he never gave his pictures titles, leaving this job to his friends at weekly meetings.

Brussels has a large number of sometimes wacky museums to get to grips with. I’m looking forward to seeing some more during our time here.

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