Belgium's Africa Museum will begin the process of returning stolen art to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an endeavour that will take several years, the Belgian government said on Tuesday.
From the late 19th century to 1960, thousands of artworks including wooden statues, elephant ivory masks, manuscripts and musical instruments were likely taken by Belgian and other European collectors, scientists, explorers and soldiers.
Belgium's Africa Museum, located just outside Brussels, has recently undertaken a $78 million overhaul, which included adjusting its programming to be more critical of the country's colonial past.
"The approach is very simple: everything that was acquired through illegitimate means, through theft, through violence, through pillaging, must be given back," said Belgian junior minister Thomas Dermine. "It doesn't belong to us."
Belgium will transfer legal ownership of the artefacts to DRC, but will wait for authorities in the African nation to request for specific artworks to be shipped.
The Africa Museum also has the option to pay a loan fee to DRC as it wants to keep the artefacts on display.
"The museum believes it will be able to co-operate with the Congolese authorities, as is common among international institutions, to keep the objects in Belgium via loan agreements," said museum director Guido Gryseels.
The DRC has few cultural centres or storage facilities for the artworks, compared to Belgium.
The museum is also aiming to identify the provenance of some artefacts, with plans to employ a team of scientists and experts over the next five years to determine which objects were obtained legally by the museum.
In the 19th century, Congo became a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II before becoming a colony of the Belgian state. In the process, millions of Congolese people are estimated to have died.