More-than-Human Remains: Reckoning with Ivory in (Post)Colonial Museums

A close up photo of the display of an elephant (Loxodonta africana) from Congo at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. The display shows two ivory horns, a long trunk, four legs, and the entire body of the elephant at an angle on a black pedestal.

The politics of history cannot be divorced from the politics of historical display. Every museum exhibition tells a story, contributing to the formation of collective memories and cultural ideologies.[1] Contemporarily, sites of historic display — particularly museums — have grappled, sometimes reluctantly, with moral questions of what, or who, should be displayed for public consumption. Repatriation of Indigenous remains and native crafts like the Benin Bronzes, for example, have thrust iconic European museums into international headlines.[2] Museums developed and funded by European colonization often grapple with the morally blurry lines between public education and neocolonial exploitation. Elephant tusk — otherwise known as ivory — is embedded in these politics of historical display.

Tervuren, Belgium hosts the (in)famous Royal Museum of Central Africa. The official museum opened in 1910, but it was originally formulated as part of a royal exhibition in 1898. Constructed during the height Belgium’s foray into African colonialism, its exhibits at first highlighted the region now known as the Congo. Belgium’s King Leopold II forcefully ran the “Congo Free State” from 1885 to 1908. It was privately owned by Leopold II, making it an absolute monarchy that was not technically a part of Belgium in the way a traditional “colony” would be. Legally and politically, Leopold II was able to justify this “personal union” of the two states by lauding his philanthropic work within the region. It was only after Leopold II’s brutal intentions were exposed that he was forced to turn the Congo Free State into the “Belgian Congo,” a more traditional (but no less genocidal) iteration of a European colony, where Belgium would retain colonial rule until it attained independence in 1960.[3]

Like most colonial-era museums, the Royal Museum of Central Africa was intended to educate Belgians as to “who they really were” in contrast to the “uncivilized” and “savage” Congolese people.[4] Dehumanization (and its corollary, animalization) was central to the colonial project, especially through visual rhetoric painting colonists as the pinnacle of humanness and colonized as beasts in need of domestication.[5] The RMCA has since closed and reopened, endlessly fighting its reputation as a “tool of propaganda” propping up Belgian “colonial heroes.”[6] Infamous to the museum is an ivory bust, carved in 1897 by the sculptor Thomas Vincotte. His masterpiece, an ivory bust of King Leopold II, was meant to honor Leopold II’s colonial forays. It was at times located in the middle of the RMCA’s central rotunda. The ivory Leopold II stoically gazed upon patrons for decades, until critiques and public outcry convinced museum officials to hide the bust away with other controversial museum pieces. The bust, however, was and is far from the only piece of colonial-era ivory art haunting the museum’s decadent halls.

Trophy hunting and European colonialism were inextricably intertwined. In gazing upon Leopold II’s bust, museum patrons could encounter a type of rhetorical taxidermy. They viewed a representation of human/nature co-colonization, a moment wherein the ivory bust presented two absent referents: the brutalized elephant subjects slaughtered to make the bust and the Congolese humans exploited for their labor and brutalized in the name of Leopold II. Colonial ivory exemplified—and still exemplifies—the literal and figurative fusion of human and nonhuman animal bodies in the justification, construction, and maintenance of the Belgian colonial projects.

Leopold II ventured into the Congo to extract profit from the land. While narratives of the violent history of the Congo Free State and the subsequent Belgian Congo highlight the king’s brutal “red rubber” plantations,[7] he was initially interested in profiting from the areas plentiful stock of ivory—that is to say, living elephants. He was far from the only European monarch to do so. European settlers often used ivory profits to finance African explorations. Considered both exotic and easy to carve, ivory was a luxury product for European buyers who jumped at the possibility of owning ivory billiard balls, snuff boxes, chess pieces, piano keys, or—like the bust of King Leopold II—sculptures. African elephants had much larger tusks than their Asian counterparts. One tusk could potentially produce hundreds of luxury knick-knacks. Leopold II quickly filled his royal coffers with the profits of dead elephants. Despite elephant protection measures instituted at the Congo Basin Convention in 1892, elephant hunting continued en masse. In 1899, ivory exports maxed at 291,731 kilos.[8]

Anticolonial activists have rightly critiqued how the dehumanization of Congolese people, who were often compared to animals to justify colonialism. Less discussed is how Europeans strategically excluded native Africans from partaking in these profitable trophy hunts under the guise of animal welfare and environmental conservationism. It was asserted that African modes of hunting with arrows and spears were invariably crueler than European methods. Sir Henry Seton-Carr of the British-based Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE) argued that the European hunter “kills, it is true but only in sweet reasonableness and moderation […] mainly for trophies,” since “wholesale slaughter is abhorrent to him.” European hunters believed hunting with firearms was the proper way to hunt. Without a trace of irony, they banned native Africans from carrying firearms at all, classifying those who did as poachers engaged in “reckless shooting.” Seton-Carr explained “real depredators […] in all wild countries have been natives.” This ban, coupled with requisite licensing and restrictions on big-game hunting, ensured that European colonists could profit from their animal slaughter (which they believed was based in a “noble respect” for nature) whereas their native counterparts could not.

Even after an elephant was slaughtered for its tusk, colonial violence was not finished. Congolese ivory porters were forbidden to sell ivory to anyone other than an agent of Leopold II. The indigenous ivory trade was destroyed by Belgium’s “command economy,” which created a system of low-paid dealers and porters dependent on colonial trade agents. The king’s agents, who received a cut of the procured ivory’s European market value, had “a powerful incentive to force Africans—if necessary, at gunpoint—to accept extremely low prices.”[9] Porters also endured brutal working conditions, for which only some were paid, and not paid much. In yet another act of interspecies violence, Congolese porters who complained risked beatings by a chicotte, a whip composed of a dead hippo’s hide. Elephants too were made to labor in the transportation of their fellows’ remains, for they were just as valuable as drought animals as they were sources of raw material. Many died during these domestication experiments, but nonetheless, the SPWFE’s P.L. Sclater and Monsieur Nibueld from extolling the prowess of “Free State authorities” innovating “the capture and training of the African elephant.”[10]

Given this understanding, museums face the question: What should be done with colonial ivory? How should patrons respond if they encounter it? Moreover, what does it entail to consider museum reparations as a more-than-human endeavor?[11] As Achille Mbembe explained, hunting and colonizing have been and still are synonymous enterprises. “What holds true for the animal holds true for the colonized” inasmuch as human-to-human colonization “is almost always deployed in the framework (or on the fringes) of a meta text about the animal.”[12] To exist, Mbembe argues, “the colonizer constantly needs the native as animal that serves as the support for the colonizer’s self-consciousness.”[13] What, then, are the ethics of producing and consuming historical displays that are borne of killing?

At the very least, paying lip service to the “fallen” elephant of yesteryear whose tusks now sit on display is not enough. It was not enough then and is certainly not enough now given dwindling elephant populations due in no small part to the ivory trade. Ivory is not simply an art source. It is, quite literally, a skeletal remain, attached to what was once a sentient “who.” The elephant once roamed the very same as those who perpetrated and those who were victimized by colonial exploitation. She was a victim as much as the humans victimized beside her. To view colonial-era ivory artwork, therefore, is to view an important remnant of colonialism, one that crossed species lines then and still does to this day. Environmental historians, in their endeavor to decolonize colonial museums, must address not only the ecological devastation of ivory collection but also its embeddedness in colonialism.[14] At the very least, ivory should be understood as it is: a piece of an elephant’s corpse whose story is itself embedded in some of the most violent parts of human history.

[1] Greg Dickinson, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott, eds. Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010).

[2] See Neil Curtis, “Universal Museums, Museum Objects and Repatriation: The Tangled Stories of Things,” Museum Management and Curatorship 21, no. 2 (2006): 117-127; Nancy Marie Mithlo, “‘Red Man’s Burden’: The Politics of Inclusion in Museum Settings,” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 3/4 (2004): 743-763.

[3] See Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Picador, 1998); Jean Muteba Rahier, “The Ghost of Leopold II: The Belgian Royal Museum of Central Africa and Its Dusty Colonialist Exhibition,” Research in African Literatures 34, no. 1 (2003): 58-84.

[4] Rahier, “The Ghost of Leopold II,” 61.

[5] See Philip Armstrong, “The Postcolonial Animal,” Society & Animals 10, no. 4 (2002): 413-419; Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The new centennial review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337.

[6] Matthew Stanard, Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-Empire Propoganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism (Kearney, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 91-92.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marc Cioc, The Game of Conservation: International Treaties to Protect the World’s Migratory Animals (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009); David K. Prendergast and William M. Adams, “Colonial Wildlife Conservation and the Origins of the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (1903-1914),” Oryx 37, no. 2 (2003): 251-260.

[9] Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 118.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] The term is borrowed from David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Random House, 1996).

[12] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 1, 166.

[13] Ibid., 188.

[14] This essay is based upon my article in the Journal of Critical Animals Studies and my catalogue essay for the (similarly culpable) Humboldt Forum’s special exhibit on elephants. See: S. Marek Muller, “Elephant tracings: A critical animal/postcolonial genealogy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 14, no. 2 (2017): 5-41, and S. Marek Muller, “Living Material: Human Supremacy in Ivory Exhibitions,” in Terrible Beauty: Elephant – Human – Ivory, ed. Humboldt Forum (Germany: Hirmer Publishing, 2021), 178-185.

*Cover image description: A display of an elephant (Loxodonta africana) from Congo, located in the Landscapes and Biodiversity Room at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. Frans M. Olbrechts, the director of the museum from 1947 to 1957, organized the collection and preparation of animals during the Belgian colonization of Congo.

[Cover image description: A close up photo of the display of an elephant (Loxodonta africana) from Congo at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. The display shows two ivory horns, a long trunk, four legs, and the entire body of the elephant at an angle on a black pedestal.]

Edited by Morgan P. Vickers; reviewed by Emily Webster.

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