Brussels university to return skulls from colonial period to Congo

The Free University of Brussels (ULB) will return human skulls taken to Belgium from the Congo during the colonial period to the University of Lubumbashi (UNILU). Some skulls were part of collections that medics and scientists working with ULB had formed at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th centuries.

Following a conference organised by ULB in 2019 on the question of human remains from the colonial period being stored in Belgian universities, the Brussels university has just signed an agreement with Lubumbashi University, reported the Agence d’Information d’Afrique Centrale (ADIAC).

A statement from ULB, reported by the agency, said: “With the emergence of new scientific disciplines during the second half of the 19th century, anthropology, like other scientific fields, was included in scientific collections for research and education. Among these, certain specimens were collected or acquired during the first stages of colonisation of the Congo, in the context of development of racial anthropology.”

Bodies and body parts of inhabitants from various locations in today’s Democratic Republic of Congo had thus been ‘acquired’ and transported to Belgium by military or colonial Belgians before being added to anthropological collections in Belgian universities, said the statement.

Restitution of cultural heritage

ULB had set up a process to study these ‘collections’ in view of international museum conventions, taking account not only of scientific and legal issues but also political and moral concerns, reported the agency.

ADIAC reported Annemie Schaus, rector of ULB, as saying: “The future of the skulls kept at ULB cannot be excluded from the bigger global debate on restoring human remains taken from the former colonies to the benefit of colonial regimes which ruled at that time.

“This demands a dignified and respectful approach to these human remains. In the context of international legal rights asserting a right of repatriation of human remains, ULB and UNILU have taken advantage from the start of their long and successful collaboration to develop a convention of restitution for UNILU,” said Schaus.

Gilbert Kishiba Fitula, rector of UNILU, said: “The restitution of cultural heritage is a complex question, the realisation of which rests at state level. Universities are called on to play a preparatory role through large-scale scientific research and investigative workshops, because human remains, namely the skulls of our ancestors stored in European museums, are witness to painful episodes of colonial history.”

He added that their restoration to the Congolese people represented an ethical priority which must be welcomed as a decisive stage for retaking possession of the hidden events of the past, and for scientific cooperation with the weight of the past removed.

ADIAC reported that, along with the agreement, UNILU proposed, with the support of ULB and other partner universities, to set up a scientific-academic platform to research questions of restoring Congo’s cultural properties together with the human remains kept in European museums and institutions, and elsewhere. — Compiled by Jane Marshall.[i/]

This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original reports.