Nigeria's museum landscape Public attraction even without art treasures

Ekasa Masquerades Dancers performing at the palace 2016
Ekasa Masquerades Dancers performing at the palace 2016 | Photo (detail): K. J Eweka

The evidence of the highly developed courtly art that flourished in the old kingdom of Benin has been preserved in European and North American museums and private collections since the British colonial period. This fact still forces Nigerian museums to preserve the cultural memory of its indigenous peoples in other ways.

By Kennedy Jude Eweka

Before the year 1900 there was nothing like the conventional museum culture in Benin tradition. The concept was introduced by the British who colonised this part of West African territory known today as Nigeria. The British punitive expedition that led to the “discovery” of African art can be traced back to 1897. Afterwards, the introduction of British colonial rule in Nigeria was a trigger for social change.  The traditional lifestyle epitomised in African art forms was suddenly under threat of westernization, the museum became a “safe haven” for historical artefacts.

In pre-colonial Benin Kingdom; art commission, patronage, safeguarding and ownership was the sole responsibility of the Royal Palace. The highly developed system of court art that had flourished in the old Benin Kingdom was brought to an end by the Benin Massacre by the British soldiers in 1897. Until today, most of the objects acquired in this way adorn museums, galleries and private collections across Europe and North America. The few objects left behind are today held in trust by local museums in Nigeria. These cultural artefacts were also previously administered by the British colonial authority and are the last evidence of the cultural heritage of the indigenous tribes on their territory.

Innovative ways to preserve collective memory

The National Museum of Benin City enjoys the benefits of being located at the heart of an established ancient culture and traditional institution, which is symbolised by the Oba’s Palace in Benin City, which houses the Oba, a divine King. Benin City is referred to as the hub of culture in Nigeria, dating back to the era of Ogiso and Oranmiyan-Eweka era accounting for the reign of about seventy-one Rulers under the law of primogeniture. In Benin City, old traditions and cultural ceremonies of the Edo people are re-enacted in events organized jointly between the community and the museum. Thousands of local and foreign visitors flock to Benin City to witness these traditional ceremonies. They are drawn to these unique festivals, some of which are centred on deity worship, rites of passage and transition ceremonies of the departed King “Ewimnokhua” and Coronation ceremonies of the heir to the throne. Some visitors also come to observe the traditional artistic skills of the bronze casters at Igun Street in Benin City.

Living works of art

The National Museum of Benin City brings together traditional and contemporary artists to organize joint exhibitions that display indigenous culture. These activities, which include cultural dances, symposia on historical topics and engagement with cultural artefacts from the museum’s holdings, create strong bond between the community and the Museum. The National Museum of Benin City is also strategically located at the epicentre of Benin’s culture and traditions. Just a stone-throw away from the museum is the Bronze Casters’ Guild at Igun Street where traditional Bronze casters still practice their ancient art of bronze casting. The significance of this is not lost on the visitors to the museum as it helps to re-enforce the significance of the artefacts within the museum’s holdings as living works of art.

Local art for a global audience

The museum grants permission for the export of artefacts, crafts and African contemporary art works. This is to ensure that the movement of African arts outside its shores is well coordinated and adequately documented - vital information regarding the art works such as the name of the Artist who produced them, the country where they are being taken to and if such art is on the list of items approved for export. This approach contributes greatly to the safeguarding of collective cultural heritage for future generations.

Preservation of heritage sites and monuments

The museums work together with the local communities to preserve the designated historical sites and monuments. In Benin City, there are several heritage sites such as the Oba’s palace, the Benin City Moat, the Emotan Statue and the Royal Palm Tree at Uselu, a town ten kilometres from Benin City, to name a few. The partnership between the museum and the local community has resulted in a high level of commitment to the restoration and preservation of these ancient landmarks.

Evolution of royal palaces

Today, the old royal places are vibrant centres for traditional and cultural activities of the local communities. The Ogiso’s Palace more than 2000 years old, which housed about 31 Ogisos (divine sky kings) during the first era of kings in the Benin kingdom, is located at Ugbekun Quarters in the old Benin Kingdom. The palaces are now designated as a traditional ground. The second palace is the Uzama Palace, located around the Uzama Quarters in Benin City. It was the home of four monarchs from the year AD 1200 to AD 1280. The old palace ground has remained a significant coronation site until today.

The present Oba Palace, which in ancient times was the coordination centre for state affairs, has undergone several evolutions over the years: from colonial to self-rule, to adapting to different military and democratic political regimes. Today it is central to the cultural and historical existence of the Benin People; it is the place where traditional matters, political, commercial and cultural issues are deliberated.
  • National Museum of Benin City showing the Curator at the centre with foreign and local visitor at the front of the museum on 3rd April 2018. © Joshua Eweka
    National Museum of Benin City showing the Curator at the centre with foreign and local visitor at the front of the museum on 3rd April 2018.
  • A bronze store at Igun Street with foreign visitors buying finished bronze objects, 2018. © Kennedy Eweka
    A bronze store at Igun Street with foreign visitors buying finished bronze objects, 2018.
  • A demonstration of Igun Bronze Caster’s skill, 2018. © Kennedy Eweka
    A demonstration of Igun Bronze Caster’s skill, 2018.
  • An Igun bronze caster’s workshop on Igun Street at Erhumwonse quarters, Benin City, showing unfinished casts. © Kennedy Eweka
    An Igun bronze caster’s workshop on Igun Street at Erhumwonse quarters, Benin City, showing unfinished casts.
  • A section of the old Oba Palace buildings as at 2015 © K. J Eweka
    A section of the old Oba Palace buildings as at 2015
  • A section of the renovated palace buildings as at 2016 © K. J Eweka
    A section of the renovated palace buildings as at 2016
  • The Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II seated at Aro Ozolua in the modernized palace in 2019 © K. J Eweka
    The Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II seated at Aro Ozolua in the modernized palace in 2019
  • A cross section of Benin Chiefs paying homage to the Monarch at the palace 2016 © K. J Eweka
    A cross section of Benin Chiefs paying homage to the Monarch at the palace 2016
  • A cross section of Benin Chiefs paying homage to the Monarch at the palace 2016 © K. J Eweka
    A cross section of Benin Chiefs paying homage to the Monarch at the palace 2016
  • The Traditional Ground Edaiken of Uselu Palace Benin City during the coronation ceremonies in 2016 © K. J. Eweka
    The Traditional Ground Edaiken of Uselu Palace Benin City during the coronation ceremonies in 2016
The Palace also houses other significant cultural artefacts, several chambers and ancestral altars. Presently, the original structure is being modified according to modern architectural standards while maintaining its traditional and cultural relevance. It is the hub of daily cultural and traditional activities.