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Belgian king skips re-opening of 'looted' Africa museum
King Philippe of Belgium (2ndR) attends a ceremony held for the 140th anniversary of the Brussels main synagogue (Grande synagogue de Bruxelles / Grote synagoge van Brussel) in Brussels on November 26, 2018. LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ / Belga / AFP.

BRUSSELS (AFP).- The king of the Belgians will not attend the re-opening of his country's notorious Africa Museum, for fear of being dragged into the debate about the continent's looted treasures.

The museum is to re-open at the weekend after a five-year refurbishment meant to better explain Belgium's brutal colonial-era exploitation of the royal territory in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Previously, the former Royal Museum for Central Africa had a reputation for outdated exhibits that minimised or even glorified the crimes of Belgian colonists against Africans under their rule.

Curators now hope that the museum will put the art and artefacts of the era in proper context, but the re-opening coincides with a new debate on whether Belgium should hold the pieces at all.

And King Philippe, whose royal ancestor Leopold II founded Belgium's African colony and exploited it as a personal private venture, wants no part in the argument over whether they should be sent back.

"The debate about restitution is still ongoing, it hasn't been decided. The climate is not quite right for a visit. The king does not get mixed up in ongoing debates," a palace spokesman told AFP.

Government-run museums in several European former colonial powers have come under pressure from anti-racism activists to return objects that were taken from Africa.

Defenders of the museums argue that, however they were acquired, the cultural treasures will be better cared for and displayed to more visitors in wealthier European collections.

The Africa Museum was refurbished at a cost of 66 million euros and groups representing Belgians of African descent have denounced it as little more than a "trophy cabinet" for looters.

Mireille-Tsheusi Robert of the Bamko association said the government should set up an expert committee to determine as best as possible the exact origin of the items.

"We are falling behind the curve, internationally," she told national broadcaster RTBF. "I will not set foot in that museum, because for me it would be like dancing and merry-making around a tomb."

The Africa Museum will reopen to the public on Sunday, after a planned ceremony on Saturday that will now not have its royal guest of honour.

"It is going to be a magnificent museum, but for us it is a little premature to go there," the palace spokesman said.

© Agence France-Presse

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