Sunday 27 November 2011


‘Lagos Museum’s collaboration with Ford Foundation is a success story’

By Tajudeen Sowole

The redeployment, recently, of the curator of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, Ms Ronke Ashaye to Abuja, has paved way for her deputy, Mrs Victoria Agili to step in, in acting capacity, as the head of the Lagos heritage house. But for the Onikan Museum that seldom organizes exhibition, it is believed that Agili’s responsibility will be loud in the areas of administration and preservation of collections in her custody. She shares her experience of over three decades as staff of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM) and plans on how to deliver on her latest mandate. Excerpts: 

   AGILI’s experience in curatorial service

I majored in Botany with subsidiary courses in Archaeology at the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State. I have also obtained a postgraduate certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. I joined the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in 1977 and worked mostly with the collections in the Documentation Unit, rising to become the head of the unit.

  In addition to looking after the collections, the unit also conceptualizes and curates exhibitions. By training and experience, I think I can confidently say that I have what it takes to head the curatorial services. For the record, I also hold an MBA in Management from the IESE Business School and a Postgraduate Diploma in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from the University of Lagos. And for a number of years I worked in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) here in Lagos heading both the Information and Human Resources Units. For the past five years, I was heading the Monuments, Heritage and Sites Unit at the National Museum, Lagos, as well as being deputy to the curator.

How much of archaeology or botany can be related to collections and curating of art works?

   Don’t forget I have a postgraduate certificate in Museum Studies and I joined the NCMM, not as an archaeologist, but as Botanist. The idea then was to set up a museum of natural history. In fact, we have a large collection of insects, which was donated to us, which we have used for exhibitions. We have also had other natural history exhibitions showing some of the plants and animals that are found in Nigeria. I think perhaps because of shortage of resources and emphasis being placed in other areas, we were not able to set up the museum of natural history.  But the idea is that as curator of a museum, you can work with the collections that are relevant to that Museum. I have been working with the ethnographic collections at the Lagos Museum for over 22 years.

The state of the proposed museum of natural history

   The Director-General, MallamYusuf  Abdallah Usman was in Lagos recently and disclosed that it is being set up at the Jos Museum. A museum of natural history as the name implies has to do with nature: plants and animals that inhabit an environment. For instance, in a natural history museum, you can have a stuffed lion skin stimulating a real lion or someone can recreate the Savanna and put it in the museum – just anything that has to do with nature. But we must not mistake a museum of natural history for a botanical garden or zoo; they are not the same.

As a curator of Nigeria’s largest home of antiquities, what exactly do you have to make up for not having a background in Art History or Visual Arts?

   I have a theoretical background for working in museums and I have almost 22 years experience working here in the Lagos Museum! I started from the export permit unit and then the documentation unit and as I said this is the unit where you work entirely with the collections, documenting, researching on them and using them for exhibitions. So, for over two decades, I have worked closely with the collections and know them like the back of my hand. Furthermore, the importance of the sculptural art objects in our collections is not limited to art for its own sake, but lies within religious and social contexts, which has a lot to do with the way man reconciles his life with his environment – with the problems of birth, survival, well-being, longevity, death and reincarnation, indeed the whole life cycle.  
Victoria Agili, Acting Curator, National Museum, Onikan, Lagos

Her view on ‘unauthorized exportation’ of artefacts from the national museum

  The export permit unit is for exportation of non-antiquity, in other words, contemporary works of art. When you are taking such works out of the country, you must come here to take a permit so that the officials at the airport are informed on the content of exports. Concerning the allegations of exportation of antiquities, from museums, people would always allege things.  While I was here, however, and since I have returned few months ago, I have not known of any unauthorised exportation of antiquities from our museums. And to the best of my knowledge, I have not heard that any official here was dismissed because of selling or exporting antiquities.

  Last year, there was an allegation that some Benin works were stolen from the Benin Museum. But the truth was that the Benin objects were on loan to the Lagos Museum. They were used in an exhibition, which has now been dismantled here at the Lagos Museum. We looked into the stores here in Lagos and found them intact. But I can’t say about the illegal sales that go on outside the museum.

How many collections do you have in the museum? And does the museum still collect?

 I have the exact figures, but I am not authorized to release them to you except with approval. We still collect, but not as aggressively as in the past when ethnographers and archeologists go out, routinely, to look for objects. However, people still bring their works to us, which we buy if they are genuine.

Over two years after Ford Foundation announced a collaboration to help rehabilitate the national museum, how much of progress has been made?

Oh… quite a lot has been achieved, and so much is still in the pipeline. With the Ford Foundation’s assistance, we hope to build a conservation laboratory, more galleries and expand other facilities such as the collections storage facilities.

  In the meantime, the Foundation’s assistance has enabled us modernise and convert certain portion of our office to a computer laboratory for the training of staff on the computerised documentation of collections.

  The computer lab is for capacity building in documentation to replace the analogue system. The Ford Foundation has also funded the building of a new gallery converted from several old offices. We are planning an exhibition for that gallery, funded by the Ford Foundation. It will open before the end of this year.

  And the conservation lab in the pipeline also a Ford Foundation project will have equipment and trained staff, so that we can effectively preserve our collections, so that we don’t have to keep sending people abroad to acquire skills in that area. When the lab is ready, it is hoped that it will also serve the entire West African coast as it is going to maintain international standards, while operating as the best in Africa.”

What is the update on the rehabilitation of the Ilojo Bar (Olaiya Family House), one of the four listed national monuments in Lagos assessed early this year?

  A lot of efforts is being made to rehabilitate the Ilojo Bar national monument. The D-G, Mallam Usman led a team to the house at the Tinubu square early this year to commission and pay for a survey and condition report on the building. The restoration architect, Prof John Godwin, in his report, assured that the building is strong enough to withstand rehabilitation. However, the cost of the restoration is huge because it must be restored in such a way that it maintains the original character of the building. Restoration therefore cannot be borne by the Commission alone, so we are reaching out to a number of stakeholders including the Lagos State government. In fact, happily, I can inform you that yesterday (the interview was done few weeks ago) we met with the Lagos State Commissioner for Home Affairs and Culture, Hon Oyinlomo Danmole. The Commissioner assured us of the interest of the Lagos State Government in the preservation of monuments and historical buildings in the state.

  According to the commissioner, Lagos State Government was also very much interested in the Brazilian Quarters generally. And Ilojo Bar, one of the best examples of Brazilian style architecture is one of the buildings to be rehabilitated. The Commissioner has also set up a committee, which includes a representative from the Brazilian Embassy to deliberate on what is required to bring the monument back to its original state. I think we are moving closer to the rehabilitation of the building.

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