The museum focuses on the Congo, a former Belgian colony. The sphere of interest however (especially in biological research) extends to the whole Congo River basin, Middle Africa, East Africa and West Africa, attempting to integrate "Africa" as a whole. Intended originally as a colonial museum, from 1960 onwards it has more focused on ethnography and anthropology. Like most museums, it houses a research department in addition to its public exhibit department.
As of November 2013, the museum is closed for renovation work (including the construction of new exhibition space) which is expected to last until December 2018 when the museum will reopen.
After his Congo Free State was recognized by the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, King Leopold II wanted to publicise the civilizing mission and the economic opportunities available in the colony to a wider public, both in Belgium and internationally. After considering other places, the king decided to have a temporary exhibition in his royal estate at Tervuren. When the 1897 International Exposition was held in Brussels, a colonial section was built in Tervuren, connected to the city centre by the monumental Avenue de Tervueren. The Brussels-Tervuren tram line 44 was built at the same time as the original museum by King Leopold II to bring the visitors from the city centre to the colonial exhibition. The colonial section was hosted in the Palais des Colonies (Palace of the Colonies). The building was designed by the Belgian architect Albert-Philippe Aldophe and the classical gardens by French landscape architect Elie Lainé. In the main hall Georges Hobé designed a distinctive wooden Art Nouveau structure to evoke the forest, using Bilinga wood, an African tree. The exhibition displayed ethnographic objects, stuffed animals and Congolese export products (coffee, cacao and tobacco). In the park, a temporary "Human zoo" - a copy of an African village - was built, in which 60 Congolese people lived for the duration of the exhibition. The exposition was a huge success.
In 1898 the Palace of the Colonies became the Museum of the Congo (Musée du Congo) and a permanent exhibition was installed. A decade later, in 1912, a small, similar museum - the Musée africain de Namur (African Museum of Namur) - was opened in Namur. The Museum began to support academic research, but due to the avid collecting of the scientists, the collection soon grew too large for the museum and enlargement was needed. Tervuren became a rich suburb of Brussels. The new museum started construction in 1904 and was designed by the French architect Charles Girault in neoclassical "palace" architecture, reminiscent of Petit Palais in Paris, with large gardens extending into the Tervuren Forest (a part of the Sonian Forest). It was officially opened by King Albert I in 1910 and named the Museum of the Belgian Congo (Musée du Congo Belge or Museum van Belgisch-Kongo). In 1952 the adjective "Royal" was added. In preparation for Expo '58, in 1957 a large building was constructed to accommodate African personnel working in the exhibition: the Centre d'Accueil du Personnel Africain (CAPA). In 1960, following the independence of the Congo, the museum's name was changed to its current title: the Royal Museum for Central Africa.
In late 2013 the museum was closed to allow a major renovation of its exhibits and an extension. Its reopening is planned for December 2018.
According to the website of the museum, the collection contains: