LONDON – In 1897 the British Army forcibly raided Benin City in what is now Nigeria, confiscating thousands of priceless artifacts known as Benin Bronzes.
Since then, there have been hopes of bringing them back from Western museums.
On Friday, hope came a little closer to reality with the publication of the first pictures of the planned Edo Museum for West African Art, in which around 300 loans from European museums are exhibited – if the money can be raised for the construction.
The three-story building designed by David Adjaye looks almost like a palace from the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Mr Adjaye intends to have it completed in five years, he said in a telephone interview.
On Friday, the architect, the British Museum and Nigerian authorities announced a $ 4 million archeology project to excavate the site of the proposed museum and other parts of the city of Benin and uncover ancient remains, including portions of the city walls.
The developments will give a boost to activists who are demanding the return of artifacts that originated in Africa during the colonial era. In the telephone interview, Mr. Adjaye, the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, appeared to be most excited about what this could mean for the people of Benin City. It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture” and be a place for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.
“It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and then for an international site.”
Mr. Adjaye also spoke about his thinking behind the museum, his obsession with the Benin bronzes and his take on the debate about the return of items from Western museums to Africa. These are edited excerpts from this conversation.
A museum for the Benin bronzes in Nigeria has been required for decades. What was your motivation for the project?
To show the power of what a museum can be in the 21st century. It’s not just a container full of curiosities. That doesn’t make sense in Africa – there is no empire or some kind of “discovery” of what America or China is.
But what is really critical is how to deal with the real elephant in the room, which depicts the effects of colonialism on the cultures of Africa. This is the central discussion that the continent needs to have about itself, about its own history and the structural destruction that has happened with colonialism. Because indeed there is a myth that Africans know their culture, but a lot has been demonized because of colonialism, and there is a lot that has been misunderstood because of the subsequent structures of colonialism – Christianity, Islam, etc.
I am not criticizing these religions, but they have somehow deteriorated the continent’s cultural heritage. So there is relearning the fundamental meaning of these objects. And for me, this retraining justifies a rethinking of what a museum on the continent is. It won’t be a western model.
The exhibiting of the returned bronzes is therefore not the end point for you, but a beginning?
Exactly: the beginning of the renaissance of African culture. You need the objects because the objects provide the provenance and physicality that connect you.
How will it be different when you talk about creating a non-western museum? The images you posted still contain showcases of objects.
When I say it will be different, I mean that it will be different in meaning. It’s different in what it’s trying to do.
Yes, there will be showcases with objects in them. But it won’t just be, “Here is the return of these bronzes, and here they are in fine cases.” That wouldn’t attract locals – not many, maybe the elite. We have spent a lot of time developing a museum as a community center that will be part of the daily rituals and daily life of the community.
The design almost looks like a fortress. What story do you hope to tell with this?
The building has a little romantic narrative. I have visited Benin City several times and it is a place that for me is on par with the largest places in the world: with Egypt, with Kyoto, with Athens. To understand sub-Saharan African culture, it is an epicenter. But you’re leaving now and it’s kind of a concrete jungle so you have to dig up that past and bring it back to life.
Fortunately, a lot is still underground. Part of our work with the British Museum is digging up the ancient walls. I was obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. According to satellite imagery, it is larger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so that we can make it visible.
With the building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls behind which these towers and pavilions appear, a kind of abstraction of what Benin City would have looked like before – what you would have experienced had it been pre-colonized. An attempt is made to have a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.
The Benin Bronzes are what activists really want to return to Benin City and be displayed in this museum. What do these objects mean to you?
It was profound the first time I saw her – and it still is. If you look at these brass plaques in the palaces and these extraordinary brass heads, then this is a truly worthy, incredible civilization. It immediately burst the image of these cultures that I had that it was somehow underdeveloped. It broke through that and showed me that here is the artistry and mastery of the culture.
I really started doing a lot of research on Yoruba and Benin City when I was working at the Smithsonian and that really inspired my thinking
Your work at this museum puts you in the middle of the debate about whether to bring objects back to Africa from Western museums. Where do you like it
Finally, a refund must be made. The objects must be returned. In the 21st century this is no longer a discussion. But the timeline and how to bring it back and the skills to manage the objects need to be developed on the continent. And I think that this is also part of the task of the museums, cultures and societies in the West that have these objects now: to support the development of this infrastructure, to enable the countries to get these objects back. It’s their cultural heritage.
Archaeological excavations often take time. When do you think the museum will be ready?
We’re all working on a period of about five years, which is fast for the cultural infrastructure. The Smithsonian took nine years to build!
I suppose given that the people of Benin City have been waiting since 1897, another five years isn’t that much time.
Hopefully. People really deserve this.