Skip to main content.

The Panorama of Congo: Cultural Heritage and Colonial History

Start of main content.

The Panorama of Congo is a large painting of the Belgian Congo measuring 115 by 14 meters. Commissioned for the 1913 International Exposition in Ghent, Belgium.

The Panorama was designed to be viewed ‘in the round’ and was exhibited in a large, purpose-built rotunda. There, visitors could view the painted landscape from a central platform providing an immersive experience.

With the Panorama, the Belgian government wished to dazzle the public by showing its colonial power and accomplishments. Before becoming an official colony of Belgium in 1908, the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo – then called Congo Free State – was the private property of the Belgian King, Leopold II. During his rule (1885-1909) the country was exposed to unbridled economic exploitation.

Leopold’s regime was characterized by wide-spread atrocities: the exploitation of Congolese labour and natural resources, massive displacement of communities, erasure of traditional cultures and societal structures and, the violent deaths of several million Congolese. Indigenous resistance was invariably met with violence. After his regime was exposed internationally, including by the Irish-born, British diplomat Roger Casement (1864-1916), this caused worldwide outrage and the territory was transferred to the Belgian Government.

A part of the Panorama

The Panorama of Congo was commissioned shortly after this transition with the intention of distracting from these past atrocities and trying to erase the violent history of Congo Free State. Although the colonial era that followed gradually moved away from the excesses of physical violence, the regime continued to be characterized by large-scale oppression, extraction of natural resources and industrial exploitation. Congo eventually became an independent country in 1960.

In 1913, almost 250,000 people visited the Panorama. After the exposition ended, the rotunda was destroyed and the painting was put in storage. In 1935 the painting was shown for a second time at another International Exposition in Brussels. When the Exposition ended, it was taken down again and has remained in storage ever since.

In December 2022, the Panorama was photographed by the CONGO VR team, making this important piece of colonial heritage available to the public for the first time in almost 90 years.

This research was developed in the context of the FilmEU – European Universities Alliance for Film and Media Arts work and supported in part by funding from the FILMEU_RIT – Research | Innovation | Transformation project, European Union GRANT_NUMBER: H2020-IBA-SwafS-Support-2-2020, Ref: 101035820 and the FILMEU – The European University for Film and Media Arts project, European Union GRANT_NUMBER: 101004047, EPP-EUR-UNIV-2020.