Major new archaeology project on site of new museum in Benin
28 November 2020
28 November 2020
Major new archaeology project on site of new museum in Benin
Together with our partners, the Legacy Restoration Trust (Nigeria) and Adjaye Associates, we are excited to announce a major new archaeology project, linked to the construction of the new Edo Museum for West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria.
This innovative project will investigate the archaeology of the Kingdom of Benin, including excavating historical remains of the capital buried below the proposed site of a new museum. This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City, Nigeria. The project is developed with the approval of the Benin Royal Court, the Edo State Government and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The Legacy Restoration Trust in partnership with the British Museum has secured the equivalent of £3 million of funding to enable this archaeological project.
The new Edo Museum of West African Art initiative – led by the Legacy Restoration Trust, and being designed by the commissioned architects Adjaye Associates – is focused on reuniting Benin art works currently within international collections, as well as investigating and presenting the wider histories that these represent. The EMOWAA Archaeology Project is a fundamental element of the early phase work for the building of the new museum, which will house the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes, alongside other collections.
The Legacy Restoration Trust is pleased to be part of the first part of the important journey towards establishing the Edo Museum of West African Art, working in collaboration with Adjaye Associates and the British Museum – Philip Ihenacho, Director of Legacy Restoration Trust
The Kingdom of Benin: the pre-colonial state and 1897
The Kingdom of Benin was one of the most important and powerful pre-colonial states of West Africa. Today Benin is known for its artworks, including castings in brass and bronze, known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, as well as objects in other materials, including ivory, coral and wood. The ‘Benin Bronzes’ include hundreds of plaques which display narratives from the early life of the kingdom. These plaques once decorated the pillars of buildings in the Benin Royal Palace and provide an important historical record of the Kingdom of Benin.
The kingdom became a major trading partner with Europeans following the arrival of Portuguese explorers on the West African coast in the 15th century. At this time, Benin was already an important political formation and major trading state. It was situated within wider West African regional networks which included trade routes across the Sahara supplying gold, ivory and other products to the North African Islamic world and beyond.
View of the Benin City Palace and beyond to the wider city, depicted in the 17th-century publication by the Dutch writer Olfert Dapper.
Benin’s place within history is equally known for its sudden and brutal conquest by British forces in the late 19th century. The invasion of Benin City in 1897 brought widespread destruction and pillage. British forces ransacked the city’s shrines and palaces, and along with other monuments the Royal Palace was burned and destroyed, with thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value looted from royal chambers and storerooms. Many of these objects are now in the collections of museums across the UK, Europe and the USA.
Brass plaque showing Benin court officials flanking a palace entrance or altar. Benin. 16–17th century.
The British Museum currently cares for more than 900 objects from Benin, a significant proportion of which came to the Museum immediately after the conquest of Benin City in 1897. More than 100 of these objects feature within a changing gallery display at the Museum and the entire collection is accessible via the Museum’s Collection online. You can read more about the Benin collections at the British Museum and how they came to the Museum here.
Debate and dialogues around Benin cultural heritage
Today, Benin and its bronzes are the focus of international debates regarding cultural property and restitution. It is against this background that the Benin Dialogue Group developed.
This group is a consortium of European, UK and Nigerian museums, members of the Benin Royal Court, and representatives of Edo State government. The group, which includes the British Museum, is working together to facilitate the construction of the new museum in Benin City to enable a permanent display of Benin works of art, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums, as well as objects in Nigeria.
In addition to directly supporting the building of a new museum framed against current debates concerning Benin cultural property and the representation of Benin’s history, it is intended that this Nigerian-British collaborative archaeological project can provide new opportunities to address the painful history of 1897, both through public engagement and critical debate.
Photograph showing British soldiers with objects looted from the royal palace during the military expedition to Benin City in 1897.
A new museum in Benin City
The new archaeological project is a fundamental element of the early phase work for the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, being developed to house West African art and artefacts, and to include the ‘Royal Collection’, the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes. EMOWAA is focused on reuniting Benin artworks currently within international collections, as well as investigating and presenting the wider histories that these represent. The museum will house a permanent display of Benin works of art, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums, as well as objects in Nigeria.
The architectural vision, led by David Adjaye and Adjaye Associates architects and a team of Nigerian professionals, is to use archaeology as a means of connecting the new museum into the surrounding landscape. The designs will revitalise and incorporate the surviving remains of the walls, moats and gates of the historic city, seen throughout the city today, including through a pedestrianising scheme and linear park that allows visitors to experience the history of the ancient city. The museum project also recognises the huge importance of the archaeological remains still preserved below the ground.
I am humbled and deeply inspired to design the new EMOWAA, a project that will establish a new museum paradigm for Africa… Decoupling from the Western museum model, the EMOWAA will perform as a re-teaching tool – a place for recalling lost collective memories of the past to instill an understanding of the magnitude and importance of these civilisations and cultures – David Adjaye, Adjaye Associates
Design proposal for the new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City – the construction site of the museum will be a major focus of excavations undertaken by the EMOWAA Archaeology Project. Image © Adjaye Associates.
The EMOWAA Archaeology Project
A central focus of the archaeological project will be essential works on the proposed site of the future EMOWAA museum, to preserve and record historical remains buried beneath the ground in advance of construction. The archaeology and historic restoration project will be delivered with the co-operation of local communities and in coordination with the Edo State government and Adjaye Associates, as well as local urban planning firms. The project will be led by a joint Nigerian and British team and will be developed together with a range of Nigerian researchers and academic institutions, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, as well as other international researchers. It is planned that this project will also provide local employment and training opportunities.
This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City and will enable a range of new perspectives on the history of the Benin Kingdom.
Previous archaeological investigations in Benin City have focused largely on the monumental defensive wall structures which once surrounded the city and are today still partially visible. The limited test excavations, which took place in the centre of Benin City in the 1950s and 60s, however, revealed some very important finds. These included preserved buildings and traces of elaborate pavements made of pottery fragments. Excavated objects included various metalwork items, such as a brass snake’s head and part of a plaque depicting a mudfish, as well as a variety of other objects telling the life of the pre-colonial kingdom, from decorated pottery vessels to traded glass beads. Today, these finds are little-known, and the buildings and pavements lay buried below the modern city.
In addition to informing curatorial narratives and future displays, excavated objects will become part of the EMOWAA museum collections and displays, and all objects will remain in Nigeria. The excavation of the site may also reveal evidence of historic buildings which may be retained in their original position to become part of the visitor experience of the new museum.
The design for the Ceramic Gallery. Image © Adjaye Associates.
NCMM is very excited about this archaeological work in historic Benin, which we hope and believe will lead to a greater understanding of the ancient kingdom of Benin – Professor Abba Tijani. Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria
The project will officially begin in 2021. Further details on the project will be announced soon.
Find out about other collaborative research and partnerships developed around the Africa collections at the Museum here.