Adjaye Associates Unveils Design Scheme for Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria

Adjaye Associates has unveiled plans and renderings for the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), a project formerly known as the Benin Royal Museum.

Sited next to Oba’s Palace in Benin City, Nigeria, the new museum is a catalyst in a three-pronged effort: to create a home and interpretive center for the art and artifacts of Benin’s heritage; to engage in archeological work in the ancient royal city, on the museum site; and to push for the restitution of countless objects looted during the colonial period, now housed in institutions across the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. Among the most famous of these artworks are Benin bronzes—cast sculptures and plaques with reliefs, many from the kingdom’s palace—of which the British Museum has 900 in its collection.

Investigating the archaeology of the Kingdom of Benin, including buried remains below the site, the project is set to start in 2021, in collaboration with the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT) and the British Museum with the local communities, the Benin Royal Court, the Government of Edo State, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

The design of Adjaye’s museum and its surrounding landscape will seek to incorporate the ruins of the royal city of Benin which was brutally destroyed by the British in 1897. Surviving fragments of walls, moats or gates will be integrated into the scheme—in what has been dubbed “the most extensive archeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin.” So far, $4 million has been raised for funding the dig. Some of the fragments may inspire the forms of the museum’s gallery pavilions which could, as described in the press release “allow the objects themselves to be arranged in their pre-colonial context,”

The construction of a world-class museum in the historic part of Benin City requires archaeological work to ensure historic remains buried below the ground at the museum construction site are preserved and recorded, and artefacts can be catalogued and preserved for display and to become part of the future collections of the new museum”.

Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State, Nigeria

The plans for the museum will doubtless further pressure Western institutions to return Benin’s patrimony—though most are not committing to permanently giving back looted pieces but lending them. Last month, the French Parliament voted overwhelmingly to return two dozen stolen objects to Benin and a sword and scabbard to Senegal—though that represents a miniscule part of the 90,000 works the country holds from all over Africa. To find out more about Benin’s art, visit Digital Benin (digitalbenin.org), a project to document and catalogue objects from the country in collections all over the globe.

From an initial glance at the preliminary design concept, one might believe this is a traditional museum but, really, what we are proposing is an undoing of the objectification that has happened in the West through full reconstruction. Applying our research into Benin’s extraordinary ruins, the city’s orthogonal walls and its courtyard networks, the museum design reconstructs the inhabitation of these forms as pavilions that enable the reconceptualization of artefacts. Decoupling from the Western museum model, the EMOWAA will perform as a retouching tool – a place for recalling lost collective memories of the past to instill an understanding of the magnitude and importance of these civilizations and cultures. 

David Adjaye