Partnership to preserve artefacts welcomed and frowned upon

The Nigerian National Museum in Lagos is to Nigeria perhaps what the British Museum is to the United Kingdom and what the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to the United States. The Nigerian National Museum is not to be compared to its British or American counterparts in terms of age, architectural design, collections, visitor attraction, sophistication and other such factors, but in terms of cultural significance.

It is sad that, over the years, the Nigerian National Museum (also referred to as the National Museum Lagos) has been referred to as a symbol of national ignominy in several reports – talk about an ageing edifice and thousands of artefacts locked away and gathering dust in poorly ventilated rooms because there is no space for them to be displayed to the public.

But, then, it is believed in some quarters that one of the main lessons evident in this era of globalisation is that broad partnerships are the key to solving broad challenges and that, when countries and institutions collaborate, big challenges level out. This sort of thinking came into play recently when a multisectoral alliance between the American and Nigerian governments and institutions of higher learning was formed.

The multisectoral partnership involved the US Mission in Nigeria, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, the National Museum Lagos, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. The collaboration aimed to equip conservators at the National Museum Lagos with advanced storage, documentation and treatment techniques to help Nigeria preserve its historic artefacts.

Project completed

The alliance happened in December 2022 by way of a grant called the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, which saw trainers from the Yale University Art Gallery conducting training workshops for Nigerian conservators. The project was titled, ‘Sustaining a Partnership in Conservation and Preservation’, according to a statement by the US Mission in Nigeria.

By October 2023, the project had been completed. The training workshops were held in Lagos and New Haven. The one in Lagos was led by conservators from the Yale University Art Gallery and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art with additional training provided for several Nigerian museum conservators in the US, according to the statement.

A spokesperson for the US Mission told University World News that the training happened because the US government “is a strong supporter of efforts to preserve Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage”, adding that the US government has provided more than US$1 million in support for projects across Nigeria over the past decade through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).

“In Nigeria, AFCP projects have helped preserve ancient archaeological sites, historic buildings and monuments and major museum collections of special historical or cultural significance,” the spokesperson said via e-mail.

Collaboration as driver for change

Such a partnership will go a long way in building Nigeria’s capacity for artefact management, Victor Ecoma, a professor of painting and art history at the University of Calabar in Cross River State, told University World News.

“Museums are responsible for the preservation, restoration, promotion and exhibition of artefacts. To perform these roles well, international partnerships are a good thing,” Ecoma said.

“You know artefacts are to be kept in conditions that are suitable to their longevity, but the way we keep them here in Nigeria is only for storage. Go to the British Museum, for instance, and you will notice how artefacts are kept under controlled temperature. Also, go to museums in the US and you will see works of art that have been in existence for over 300 years. Then you will know that we haven’t started yet here,” he said.

Bemoaning the same rhyme that has been sung by many concerned Nigerians over the years, Ecoma criticised the image the National Museum Lagos and other museums across the country bear.

“Some of the artefacts in our museums are not even properly shelved; they are not housed in cabinets to protect them from dust and, because they are not protected, they are prone to trafficking. I have been to the National Museum in Lagos and many of the artefacts were even stored away out of public view, which does not do anybody any good.

“The museum does not in any way befit Nigeria, and it should not be described as a ‘national’ museum because of our status as the most populous black nation on earth. So, collaborations between our museums and foreign institutions regarding preservation and conservation are a welcome development,” he said.

History of neglect

Ecoma’s sentiments are not out of the blue. In August 2022, when the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London announced it was repatriating 72 artefacts that had been in its collection for about 125 years to Nigeria, some members of the Nigerian academic and cultural communities were opposed to it, University World News reported at the time.

Virtually all those who opposed the artefacts’ return pointed to the singular reason: that the artworks might not be safe and properly preserved in Nigerian museums. The National Museum Lagos, which was founded in 1957 by English archaeologist Kenneth Murray, is a national proof of their notion.

Dr Kola Oseni, archaeologist and director of the Lagos State Records and Archives Bureau, in 2019 confirmed in the local newspaper Punch that a large number of artefacts were not exhibited due to space constraints, leading to theft.

Oseni, who once chaired the presidential committee for museums and monuments, said: “Then, many things were stolen. We tried to stop the theft; the people inside were the ones committing the theft. If, as a government, you are not passionate about your property, you can easily lose it. There should be a classification of our artefacts. Do we even know the total number of artefacts that we have? Do we have the data?”

In the report, Oseni said the lack of professionalism was also inhibiting the growth and expansion of the museum and called for the training of workers, which happens to be exactly why Yale University Art Gallery recently trained conservators at the museum.

On the theft of artefacts, the US Mission Nigeria spokesperson said the American government signed a cultural property agreement with Nigeria in January 2022 that protects Nigeria’s cultural objects and antiquities by prohibiting their import into the US.

“The agreement facilitates continued cooperation with Nigerian law enforcement agencies and supports efforts to identify, intercept, repatriate, and protect cultural property and related heritage,” the spokesperson said.

Training criticised

Curiously, some experts picked holes in the training workshops initiative for the Nigerian conservators. Professor Adepeju Layiwola, an artist and expert in art history at the University of Lagos, said she found it demeaning that foreign institutions would have to train Nigerian conservators how to keep their artefacts.

“With narratives like this, it appears to me as if we don’t know how to take care of our artefacts. It depicts a negative narrative about, not just Nigeria, but also Africa; that, as a people, we don’t have what it takes to preserve our artefacts.

“I think Africans should collaborate more with Africans. We had been preserving our artefacts even before the Europeans came to plunder them. So, I don’t buy the narrative that Western institutions have to hold capacity-building workshops for us to preserve what we have been doing for ages. We can take care of what is ours. I believe museum conservators can share knowledge, but [do not condone] the West training us on what to do,” Layiwola told University World News.

Likewise, Professor Uyoyou Edewor, a sculptor and art historian at Delta State University, Abraka, in Delta State, Nigeria, said the training could be likened to world powers talking about climate change while they are the major contributors to global warming.

Plundered culture

“For me, when talking about artefact conservation, a lot of things have gone wrong for a very long time, which deals with the respect and promotion of our values. Through colonialism and religion, Africa lost its place. It is amusing that it is the same West coming to tell us how we should and why we need to preserve our artefacts, whereas they were the ones who plundered our culture in the first place.

“Issues that deal with the conservation of artworks should come from us, not from the West. We must rediscover ourselves because, until we do that, all the workshops on preservation and conservation are simply singing the Western song of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Africans must know that what we have is of value because you cannot preserve what you don’t value,” Edewor said.

For better preservation and conservation of artefacts, Edewor said it was time Nigerians and Africans reoriented themselves by not likening artworks to paganism or idolatry, as many religions would have their followers believe.

“I’m a sculptor, for example, and the nature of my work is such that I get inspiration from the traditional Isoko and Urhobo cultures. How many Africans today would see my work and not feel that they are images of idolatry? If someone still feels these images represent demons, how would they value and preserve them?” he asked.