The colonial past of Belgium and Brussels is today visible in Brussels streets in various ways, such as statues and street names, but also sites and buildings. Many cities, including Brussels, still do not adopt a united stance to give these symbols a place.
On the initiative of Brussels State Secretary for Urbanism and Heritage Pascal Smet, a working group was created at the end of 2020 to initiate the necessary reflection on symbols in public space related to colonisation and the colonial period.
This 20-strong working group was composed of people from associations and academic communities, completed by representatives from the Brussels administrations involved with public space. After several fruitful exchanges, the working group formulated its recommendations last year. These recommendations formed the basis for an action plan with 14 concrete actions to decolonise Brussels public space, approved by the Brussels government last week and presented to the Brussels parliament today.
That action plan “Towards a decolonisation of public space in the Brussels-Capital Region” contains 14 concrete actions that are being launched. It is the first major concrete step towards the decolonisation of public space, a necessary condition for the decolonisation of society, which requires a continuous social, political and cultural process. The aim is to create an inclusive Brussels-Capital Region, with which all Brusselers identify themselves and where they all feel recognised.
Brussels is playing a pioneering role in decolonisation, which Smet wants to use to make Brussels exemplary for many other cities in Belgium and abroad.
The action plan is complementary to the Regional Action Plan against Racism, an initiative of Brussels State Secretary Ben Hamou.
The action plan
Action 1: Create a guidance committee
A committee will be created to monitor the action plan “Towards a decolonisation of public space in the Brussels-Capital Region”. This committee will consist of the authorities and policy makers involved, civil society representatives and academic experts. It will be guided by the decolonisation coordinator and will guarantee the high-quality implementation of this action plan for decolonisation.
Action 2: Appoint a decolonisation coordinator
A decolonisation coordinator will be appointed for two years. The task of this coordinator will be to monitor the quality implementation of the action plan and to ensure that all actions are carried out within the set deadlines, in consultation with the various stakeholders. The decolonisation coordinator will be recruited within the non-profit association Patrimoine et Culture, by means of a grant that will be approved by Government decree.
Action 3: Complete inventories of movable, immovable and natural heritage related to colonisation
The aim of this action is to gradually complete the online inventories of movable, immovable and natural heritage. In addition, the aim is also to identify the objects, sites, roads or stops belonging to the colonial heritage through a specific “tag” that will make them easier to find.
Action 4: Implement a methodology on planning permit applications on statues and traces of decolonisation
A methodology will be developed to analyse permit applications for colonial traces (buildings, public spaces, protected and unprotected parks). This methodology will include a hierarchy of possible interventions for disputed colonial traces, based on the methodology proposed by the WG (contextualisation, relocation, destruction, diversion, etc.).
Action 5: Conduct a feasibility study on the development of a decolonisation interpretation centre
Urban will commission a study to identify and evaluate the feasibility of creating a decolonisation interpretation centre in Brussels and to study its possible programming.
Urban will design and coordinate the study in consultation with the working group on decolonisation of public space and representatives of the state secretaries for heritage and equal opportunities.
Action 6: Provide financial support to organisations working on remembrance education and awareness-raising on our colonial past.
The aim is to encourage associations to integrate remembrance education and awareness-raising on our colonial past into their activities. Three actions are planned in this framework:
- A joint project call between urban.brussels and equal.brussels will be provided in 2025, related to the more general issues of representation, valorisation or stigmatisation of peoples in Brussels public space.
- The decolonisation action plan will be added to the 6 plans referred to in the project calls of equal.brussels, as a source of information for applicants to encourage projects that complement or improve the actions of these plans.
- A representative from urban.brussels will participate in the information sessions on the project calls of equal.brussels to draw attention to the need to work on the issue of representations of public space, by addressing different themes.
In addition to the planned cooperation with equal.brussels, the decolonisation theme will also be explicitly included in the project calls of Brussels International.
Action 7: Explore feasibility of establishing a memorial to the victims of colonialism
As part of the feasibility study on the creation of a centre for the interpretation and documentation of our colonial past, the possibility of creating a monument commemorating the victims of the Belgian colonisation of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi will also be explored.
Action 8: Explore feasibility of creating a depository for statues glorifying colonisation
In the context of the feasibility study on the creation a centre for the interpretation and documentation of our colonial past, the critical success factors for creating a central depository for the Region, in which (also large) colonial statues and other commemorative monuments removed from the public space can be stored, will also be analysed as one of the possible purposes (e.g. some statues do end up in a museum). Such place is not a mere logistical infrastructure, but a symbolic public space and one of the components that will mark the decolonial transformation of the urban monument landscape.
Action 9: Continue reflection on one or more annual official remembrance days related to our colonial past
In addition to the remembrance days scheduled in the Action Plan against Racism of the Brussels Government, it is proposed to continue the reflection on an annual official remembrance day within the guidance committee, and in close cooperation with the Brussels Council Against Racism. It is proposed to analyse, in consultation with the representatives of the communities involved, with the federal level and other federated entities, whether 30 June, the anniversary of Congo's independence and the commemoration of Patrice Lumumba's speech, and 1 July, the anniversary of the independence of Burundi and Rwanda, are suitable dates.
Action 10: Train and raise awareness among regional officials of urban planning departments
The officials of urban.brussels, of the Bouwmeester/Maître Architecte (chief architect) and of Bruxelles Pouvoirs Locaux will be trained and made aware on decolonisation and its challenges, to ensure effective decolonisation of public space. Brussels Mobility and Bruxelles Environnement officials involved in the organisation of public space will also be able to attend the training.
Action 11: organise various actions to raise awareness about our colonial and postcolonial past, including in the context of the Heritage Days
The Heritage Days 2022 theme was specifically about traces of colonisation in Brussels. This year’s theme is related to Art Nouveau: art for all?
• The 2023 Art Nouveau theme will reveal the many links to colonisation. This art movement grew in popularity in 1897, as part of the Brussels International Exhibition. Several Art Nouveau architects were commissioned to show the wealth of Congo, in the very special context of colonial propaganda. The colonial section was designed with a remarkable unity of style, combining African materials with the decorative Art Nouveau language.
• On 15 May 2023, Hôtel van Eetvelde was opened to the general public as part of the Art Nouveau Year. Designed by Victor Horta for the general administrator of the Congo Free State, Hôtel van Eetvelde is an Art Nouveau masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the context of the mediation and interpretation centre under construction, the colonial links will be shown.
• Alongside this, various artistic interventions will be developed. For example, the committee of the Art Nouveau Year within Urban is exploring the possible design of a discussion forum in the Cinquantenaire Park, more specifically in front of the “Monument to the Belgian Pioneers in Congo”.
Action 12: Develop a participatory process with municipalities focusing on dealing with various traces of our colonial history, such as adapting and/or contextualising toponyms and contested monuments, among others, and developing a clear and coherent signage for colonial and postcolonial heritage.
The Region and the 19 municipalities will launch a process in close consultation to define a methodology and guidelines for the dissemination and treatment of colonial traces within the BCR. This process will involve local authorities and Brussels organisations directly involved in the decolonisation of public space. In this context, it will be important to ensure a good balance between coordination within the Brussels Region and local policies. This will ensure the input and involvement of the municipalities and allow local actions to contribute to a common vision. The good practices and experiences of municipalities that have already introduced processes in this regard will provide useful input.
The following aspects will be addressed:
- Developing a methodology that allows municipalities to adapt and/or contextualise colonial toponyms;
- Relocating, adapting or contextualising contested statues and/or monuments;
- Developing a clear and coherent signage for colonial and postcolonial heritage in all its forms.
Action 13: Support the Federal Buildings Authority in its process of decolonising public space and contextualising the monuments for which it is responsible
The Federal Buildings Authority will be contacted in order to analyse how to cooperate with the federal level about decolonisation of public space, monuments and sites. For example, a first step could be to inventory all colonial monuments and statues, and then determine adjusted strategies to adapt or contextualise them. The Federal Buildings Authority will also be invited to participate in the meetings of the guidance committee of this action plan.
Action 14: Strengthen the cooperation between the Region and scientific institutions that depend on BELSPO
BELSPO will be contacted in order to strengthen cooperation, including with a view to exploring the creation of an interpretation and documentation centre.
The Region will also register in the federal dynamics regarding refunds, more specifically in the case of municipal collections.