Sunday 3 January 2016

A New Year 'Gifts' Of 70 Iconic Artefacts For Museum Lovers

By Tajudeen Sowole
As fresh air of hope blows across Nigeria in 2016, a unique exhibition of seven decades of museum collection adds to the new awakening of the country. Currently showing at one of Nigeria's oldest cultural facilities, National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, the exhibition titled The Nigeria Museums @ 70; An Enduring Legacy has on display quite a vast collection of artefacts that represent the rich diversity of the country.
D-G, NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Chief Emeka Anyaoku and other guests viewing a section of the exhibits.

Formally opened in December 2015 by National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), but not immediately accessible to the general public until January 2016, the cultural objects on display include masks, pottery, busts, royal paraphernalia, statues and costumes of masquerades. From Benin, Ife to Tada, Enugu, the objects offer great depth of knowledge about peoples' cultural or anthropological textures that are not exactly far from the remnants still existing till date.

 Among such educational factor in the exhibits is a link across cultures as seen in Wooden Ram Head, a piece described as "placed on the ancestral alter of Owo and Benin royal lineage." Post-modern political administrative structure has now grouped Owo under Ondo State, southwest while Benin is in south south. Of interest among the pronounced features of the sculpture are three tribal marks - possibly of Owo origin - on each side of the bust’s cheeks.

 Remember the controversial donors in Benin bronze sculptures and ivories given to Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, U.S, by an American collector three years ago? A memory of the unresolved donation comes in a piece among Memorial Heads at The Nigerian Museum 70 exhibition. Perhaps not exactly the same bust among the Boston acquisition, but the resemblance is striking. Also in the Memorial Heads is a replica of the iconic Ori-Olokun.

Recall that early mid 2014, the NCMM disclosed that some works were returned from foreign countries to Nigeria. MFA, Boston, according to NCMM, was mentioned as having returned some pieces while 18 were said to have been intercepted by Nigerian Customs Service at Seme borders.

Few metres away from Memorial Heads come a set of works labeled as Ekpo Face Mask.  A text attached to the objects reads in parts: "Ibibio, Annang and Efik used for entertainment and social control during burial ceremony of VIP, (Akwa Ibom)."

 A miniaturised statue in bronze, of Tsoeda from Teda (14th / 15th century) titled Figure Of A Warrior.

 During the opening ceremony, the Director-General at NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman tracked the 70 pieces on display to the collection efforts of experts and researchers in archaeology and ethnography, supervised by many heads of Nigerian museum since the colonial era. Listed among names he described as "Fathers of Nigerian museums" are Kenneth C Murray Bernard Fagg, Ekpo Eyo. Ade Obayemi,, Sule Bello, Yaro Gella, Eluyemi Omotosho, Joseph Eborieme and himself, being the current head of the government paratstatal.

 From being a Department of Antiquities in 1945, the museum management unit under the then British colonial government later metamorphosed into a wider post-colonial parastatal as NCMM via Decree No 77 of 1979. The 70th anniversary of the Nigerian Museum, Usman stated, continues in April 2016.

Currently, NCMM has 45 museums and outlets spread across the six geo-political zones of the country. The spread of its operation suggest that it is the largest parastatal in the culture sector under Ministry of Information and Culture. The NCMM's responsibility in the era of change, particularly when Nigeria is frantically focusing on the non-oil sector for revenue was highlighted by one of the special guests at the opening, Barrister Imasuen who was representative of Senator Mathew Urhoghide, Chairman Senate Committee on Culture and Tourism, noted that "being the largest parastatal, NCMM, by this responsibility" needs to ensure that it gives Nigeria alternative to oil revenue. He assured that the Senate Committee members will give their supports when necessary.
Curator, National Museum, Onika, Mrs Edith Ekunke (left) explaining the exhibits to guests

A passionate supporter of the NCMM and former Secretary General, Commonwealth of Nations, Chief Emeka Anyaoku used the occasion of the opening ceremony to stress the importance of museum in the image of a nation. He shared his experience as one of the "Queen's trustees of the British Museum." Anyaoku recalled that his eight years experience as a trustee revealed how "the British Museum prides itself as the museum of the world." He listed advantages of museums as helping to "remove colonial perception and notion of sub-humans" from the psyche of colonialists.

Anyaoku cited an example of how a single exhibition of Nigerian artefacts over 45 years ago changed Europeans perspective of African art. "In 1970, an exhibition of 2000 years of Nigerian art in London opened the eyes of Europeans that we have cultural history dates back to such a long period." He argued that despite the challenges of proper management of the museum system in Nigeria, the country's "artefacts in Nigeria museums are inestimable."

Linking museum culture and knowledge of history, Anyaoku urged President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure that History as a subject is returned to Nigeria's basic education levels. He stressed that Nigerian museums are so rich such that "they have special role to play in the history of Africa.  Anyaoku, whose influence generated presidential attention on the deplorable state of Nigerian museum during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo cited the example of a historical archaeological discovery of ancient canoe in the north. "Many do not know that the oldest man-made water craft in the world was discover in Damaturu." The craft he mentioned, which is known as Dufuna Canoe, is believed to have been made eight thousand years ago was excavated in 1987.

In the last few years, the NCMM has no doubt enjoyed quite a number of attention and support, particularly from foreign organisation. For instance, Ford Foundation and the British Museum have been supportive of capacity building, which include retraining of staffs and updating preservation laboratory for the Onikan Museum. Also, government on its part has been expanding other museums across the country. During the flag off of the 70th exhibition few months ago, Usman disclosed that the NCMM was on the verge of completing a conservation lab in Ogbomoso, Oyo State.

However, prior to these laudable steps, Obasanjo's presidential intervention, which generated N750 million naira for rehabilitation of museums seemed to have remained a mission unaccomplished till date. In fact, Usman made reference to the era at the opening of the 70th exhibition. Like most observers, the DG was still not clear what happened to the money. "750 million naira was allocated in the past to rehabilitate the museum," he recalled and added that the result "is a story for another day."

In 2008, during Ben Enwonwu lecture series, Anyaoku explained how he spoke to the then Honourable Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Adetokunbo Kayode about revival of museums. The minister, he disclosed, assured him that President Yar'Adua was interested in seeing that the state of the museums improves.

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