Uncomfortable Histories: Leopold II’s Footwear

At the museum, most of our visitors are often delighted to see baby shoes on display because of their adorably diminutive size and because they function as reminders of the innocence of youth. However, this specific pair has a deeply problematic provenance. These shoes belonged to Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor who became Leopold II, King of the Belgians and went on to commit numerous atrocities in the Congo from 1885 to 1908.

Leopold II ruled from 1865-1909. During the late 19th and early 20th century, many European countries participated in the “scramble for Africa.” These nations invaded, colonized and exploited countries across Africa for European economic and political gain. Leopold II used a private holding company to claim a large piece of land in central Africa; a region now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. This land was technically not a colony of Belgium; Leopold held it as a private citizen.

Leopold’s rule in the Congo Free State was characterized by brutal violence and his actions were eventually condemned as crimes against humanity. He exploited, mutilated and murdered millions of Congolese, using them as slave labor to collect ivory and rubber, and to work as soldiers on his behalf. On the grounds of his estate in Tervuren, Belgium, he even built a ‘human zoo’ that featured 267 Congolese people as exhibits to be gawked at by Belgian citizens. It has been estimated that killings, famine and disease caused the deaths of between 3 and 10 million Congolese during this period.

Colonialism was a cruel reality of the 19th century, but stories of Leopold’s atrocities were so shocking that contemporary European rulers condemned him even as they themselves were actively colonizing the continent. The Belgian parliament took the region away from Leopold in 1908 and after a fight for independence, the Republic of the Congo was established in 1960. In the interwar period between World War I and World War II, there was an attempt to redeem Leopold’s character, and statues of him went up around Belgium. This period has been called “the Great Forgetting” whereby Leopold’s brutal legacy was forgotten and he was suddenly celebrated for his “achievements.”

Around the world, we are in the midst of a civil rights movement. The George Floyd protests sparked by police brutality against black communities in the United States has become a global phenomenon, with millions of protesters joining in the call to end racism. As a part this movement, statues of controversial figures are being toppled because for many, they remain symbols colonial violence and racism. In the past two weeks in Belgium, several statues of Leopold II have been painted red, set on fire, and torn down.

Museums around the world are filled with objects such as these shoes that are linked to extremely difficult individuals and moments in history. As museum practitioners, we have to be very thoughtful and sensitive in how we display and contextualize these objects because they are reminders of the trauma and suffering of millions of individuals.

For many staff members at the Bata Shoe Museum, Leopold’s baby shoes remains controversial objects. So the question for us is, how can we confront their history in a responsible way? Should artefacts such as these be kept from view but preserved as a part of history? We certainly would not want to ignore this period in history, and deny the depravities that affected millions of people. If we were to ever display them, how do we do this in a way that considers the range of emotional responses we might get from visitors? These are questions that museum practitioners are constantly asking, as even the most innocent seeming object can reveal a very dark history.

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