Nigeria’s New Museum of West African Art Calls Into Question the Future of Encyclopedic Museums

This fall, barring any last-minute delays, Nigeria will open the glitzy Museum of West African Art, a sprawling 15-acre complex with a world-class historical museum, a contemporary art gallery, a research and education institute, and more. Built on the razed site of the former Benin City and constructed to resemble a historic palace, MOWAA represents a new kind of museum: deeply embedded in and designed in concert with the culture it enshrines and celebrates.

“We think about MOWAA as a blueprint, a convening point, and the center of outreach that helps grow and sustain museum infrastructure throughout West Africa, working with the living culture of Nigeria—our artisans, our local regional museums—and forging meaningful relationships and partnerships with museums in the West and globally,” Aindrea Emelife, an art historian and head curator at MOWAA, told ARTnews in a recent interview.

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As part of the construction process, archaeological teams excavated the area to bring to the surface Benin City’s surviving walls, moats, and gates, and incorporate them into the new structures, blending the region’s past with the museum’s outlook to the present and future. In doing so, according to Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University and a senior adviser to MOWAA, the museum will resuscitate the connection between ancient Benin mythological institutions that served as museums—also called palaces—and the people.

“We want the function of MOWAA to be a replica of what our people were used to in the past,” Okeke-Agulu told ARTnews. “An institution that the public that identifies with our society holds dear.”

It’s a strikingly different vision for a museum from what already exists in West Africa, that Okeke-Agulu argues are primarily “modeled after colonial governments which alienated the museum and the people.”

Nigeria is far from the only country in the Global South to inaugurate such a cutting-edge institution. This spring, Egypt is finally set to open the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), a vast $1.2 billion complex in the shadow of the Giza pyramids that will house 100,000 pharaonic and predynastic artifacts. That institution will join the existing Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which has long housed 120,000 antiquities in its rose-colored building in the heart of Cairo. Meanwhile, in 2015, Cameroon finished renovating a former presidential palace to house its National Museum. Over the span of 30 rooms and more than 53,000 square feet, that museum extensively covers the history and ethnography of the country’s 10 regions. In 2022 Ghana reopened its National Museum after a seven-year renovation and, in April, it will reopen the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, the capital of the former Asante Empire, after three years of renovation. Last year, Nepal, in partnership with the Rubin Museum, opened the Itumbaha Museum in a former monastery to display a growing collection of repatriated artifacts.

These new or renovated institutions are opening as governments in the Global South and populations in the United States and Europe call on the Global North to address its colonial history by returning stolen or plundered artifacts. That process has been underway for some time, but progress has often been halting.

The Long Saga of the Benin Bronzes

This December 20, 2022 image taken at the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja shows a Benin bronze artefact, part of some of the thousands of 16th to 18th century metal plaques, sculptures and objects -- hailed as some of the finest African art -- that were looted from the ancient Kingdom of Benin and ended up in museums and art collections across the US and Europe. - Germany handed back 20 looted artefacts to Nigeria on December 20, 2022, more than 100 years after they were stolen during a ransacking of an ancient kingdom by British colonial forces. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP) (Photo by KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images)
A Benin bronze artefact, part of some of the thousands of 16th to 18th century metal plaques, sculptures and objects that were looted from the ancient Kingdom of Benin during a handover ceremony in Abuja, Nigeria in 2022.

Nigeria has been working for years to repatriate the so-called Benin Bronzes, a group of thousands of objects the United Kingdom looted in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, now part of Nigeria. More than 161 institutions across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum, currently hold bronzes. (Neither museum responded to repeated requests for comment for this article.)

In 2019 France announced the return of 26 artifacts that had been looted from the Royal Palaces of Abomey to the modern-day Republic of Benin, but dozens of Benin Bronzes still remain in the Musée du quai Branly and have yet to be returned to Nigeria. The first official Benin Bronze repatriation came in March 2021, when the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would send back the one artifact in its holdings that it had acquired in a 1957 auction. That decision came days after the Humboldt Forum in Berlin said it would not put its Benin Bronzes on display and explore their return. So far, Germany returned 21 bronzes in late 2022, but the remaining 1,100 such artifacts—which the country legally signed over to Nigeria that July—remain on long-term loan at German museums.

In the US, some 38 museums have been identified as holders of Benin Bronzes, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In October 2022, the Smithsonian Institution transferred its 29 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, though a New York–based group sued to stop their return.

In the UK, London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens and the city of Glasgow in Scotland have returned a number of Benin Bronzes, many of which are slated to head to MOWAA. Meanwhile, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge pledged to return 116 artifacts to Nigeria in 2022, then paused the plan over conflicting claims—between the current Oba of Benin and the Nigerian government—about where to send them; that conflict remains unresolved. (Last April the Nigerian government officially transferred ownership of the Benin Bronzes to the Oba of Benin.)

The British Museum has more than 900 and has not responded to calls for repatriation, even after Nigeria raised concerns following the museum’s theft scandal this past August, which revealed that some 1,500 Greco-Roman artifacts had gone missing in recent years. “It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, told Sky News last year.

That sentiment wasn’t a new one. In 2021, at a virtual conference held by Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, academics pilloried the idea that museums in the US or Europe were safer homes for the Benin Bronzes than Nigeria.

“What right do keepers of looted objects have to determine … how the owner should keep that object?” Okeke-Agulu said of such arguments. “I don’t see that they have a right to make such demands.”

PRODUCTION - 07 September 2023, Berlin: Godwin Obaseki, governor of the Nigerian state of Edo, during an interview about the Benin bronzes. (to dpa: "Nigerian governor: No return of all Benin bronzes") Photo: Jens Kalaene/dpa (Photo by Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Godwin Obaseki, governor of the Nigerian state of Edo and commissioner of Nigeria’s pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale, during an interview about the Benin bronzes.

The restitutions undertaken by US and European museums have turned out to be small strides seemingly more concerned with media-saturated press conferences and flashy celebrations than large-scale returns. What’s the significance of the return of a couple hundred objects if 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage remains with the West? What does it mean when these objects are loaned to the owners?

The slow, halting pace of restitution and repatriation from museums in the US and Europe comes down to complicated legal frameworks about returning public property. In the UK, for example, the Charity Commission, a governmental department, must review such decisions to ensure organizations aren’t undermining their respective charitable missions. Similarly, part of the British Museum’s long-standing argument for not returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece is that a 1963 law legally restricts them from doing so.

Still, Nigeria has engaged in diplomatic meetings calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes, proposed an exchange of Benin’s contemporary works for historical ones, and continues to refuse to accept the return of only a few objects. At the core of these efforts is a push for the artifacts to be housed either in MOWAA, or a royal museum to be built by Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler of the Edo people, to whom the bronzes now belong.

Emelife and Okeke-Agulu, MOWAA head curator and senior adviser, respectively, said that the museum is ready to work with Nigeria’s federal government and royal heads, such as the Oba, to get the bronzes and other artifacts back, and to ensure they are adequately preserved. If the Oba receives the artifacts, they said, MOWAA would serve as an institutional and technical adviser in their preservation. (MOWAA is a joint project between the Edo state government and the private sector.)

“[The building of] MOWAA is an attempt to [deal] with issues of restitution, with cultural artifacts, issues of memory and social memory but, perhaps more pressingly, [it] expands the role of the museum to bring relevance to contemporary creativity,” said Emelife, who is also curating the Nigerian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. (MOWAA is serving as the pavilion’s official organizer.)

‘The Idea of the Universal Museum Has Failed’

MOWAA under construction in Benin City, Nigeria. It is slated to open this fall.

Like GEM in Egypt or Manhyia Palace Museum in Ghana, MOWAA has naturally called into question the purpose and future of encyclopedic museums, which aim to gather examples of artistic and cultural expression from across centuries and cultures in a single collection. Such museums, like the Met in New York and the British Museum in London, purport to present global history and, in the words of a 2002 declaration signed by 18 major museums, “serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.” The so-called Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, whose signatories were nearly all European or American museums, was intended to counter calls for repatriation—in particular, the Parthenon Marbles—and declare Western museums the proper custodians for the artifacts they hold. The British Museum’s theft scandal last summer and the Met’s repeated ties to looted artifacts in recent years, along with the shifting global conversation about repatriation and restitution, have called such grand declarations into question.

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“The encyclopedic museum had an idea that it could serve as an opportunity to learn more about the world and in turn about ourselves, but this opportunity has never been democratic,” Emelife said. “We are looking to deconstruct the museum model itself, creating an expansive creative district that is an ecosystem that addresses the needs of West Africa head-on, with global connectivity at the heart of the challenge.”

Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University and author of the 2020 book The British Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, told ARTnews that it is time for museums to revisit that 2002 declaration, considering how views on restitution have changed in the past two decades.

“The idea of the universal museum has failed,” he said. “There have already been groundwork plans put in place for restitution since 2020, and soon it may become a much bigger conversation where governments will be forced to act.”

Hicks is not arguing for museums to empty their collections and send them back to their countries of origin, because most objects in museums are not subject to demands for return. Instead, he argues for open, respectful dialogue between institutions and the countries and peoples making compelling cases for their objects’ return.

“The museum needs to be a different space from [its colonial history] if it wants to thrive. It needs to be a place where we care for objects and people,” Hicks said.

The first step is transparency. Many encyclopedic museums do not reveal the actual number of items in their possession, which has the effect of dampening calls for restitution, Hicks argued.

“In these museums, such a small number of items are actually even on the database and certainly not in the public,” he said. “Lots of these conversations about restitution have been in the past about what’s on display. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The conversation also has to be about what’s hidden away in the stores.”

The long-term viability of encyclopedic museums, according to Okeke-Agulu, will come down to whether they take responsibility for their colonial legacies and if they can approach restitution in an open and lenient manner.

“Nigeria doesn’t have a lot of space for all the items in encyclopedic museums,” he said. “If it is legally recognized that a lot of the loot is ours, then we can lend it to them for some time. We should look toward building a cultural environment where there can be a healthy cross-exchange of items for a while.”

As Emelife looks ahead, she sees MOWAA pioneering a new future for museums. “Art is not the only thing that will live at MOWAA, but art, artisans, and artists too, ” she said.


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