The Edo Museum of West African Art
Two years ago, we said in this column that museum curators in the wealthy West should not just give back cultural material regarded as having been looted in the past, but also work with their counterparts in the recipient museums to share skills in conservation and access (CWA 93). The British Museum (BM) has now announced such a scheme: a collaboration between the BM and Nigerian partners to create a new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City. In addition, there will be a joint British and Nigerian archaeological project to explore the history of the Kingdom of Benin and the former capital, world famous for its copper-alloy plaques and sculptures.
It is astonishing to learn how little is known about the palace culture that produced these great works of art, the oldest of which dates from the 12th century, while most were produced in the 15th and 16th centuries. But acquiring knowledge was perhaps not uppermost in the minds of the British forces who attacked Benin City in 1897. Military leaders at the time described this as a ‘punitive expedition’ in reprisal for the killing by Edo warriors of the 220-plus members of a consular expedition to Benin earlier that year.
The punishment was out of all proportion to the perceived crime – it led to the destruction of the palace complex, described by a Dutch visitor in 1688 as being ‘as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries… resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are
kept very clean.’
Rediscovering the history of Benin
Several thousand of those copper-alloy ‘pictures’ were looted and ended up in a variety of museum collections in Europe and America: the BM has the most (900), followed by the Ethnological Museum of Berlin (580), the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (327), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (163), and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (100 – see p.44). There are precious few left in Benin City itself, but that situation could well be rectified, since one aim of this new ‘Rediscovering the History of Benin’ initiative is to ‘reunite Benin artworks currently within international collections’, as well as investigating and presenting the wider histories that they represent.
The BM has not officially announced future plans for the Benin artefacts in its collection, but the museum trustees and directors around the world have signalled their willingness to lend items, creating a ‘permanent collection in rotation’ in Benin City.
The future site of the museum will be excavated first, in what is billed as ‘the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City’, and any structures and finds uncovered by this work will be incorporated into the new museum. The building itself will be designed by Adjaye Associates, the firm founded by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, OBE, whose most prominent work to date is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 on the National Mall in Washington DC. The Edo Museum will include galleries dedicated to contemporary art, and will ‘look at new ways of engaging local communities, children, and young people through workshops, publications, talks, and digital content, reconnecting local people with their history and highlighting the significance of the history of the Kingdom of Benin’.
Europe’s Jewish architectural heritage
In the scale of human wickedness, the systematic persecution of the Jewish people over many centuries, leading to the murder of six million Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War, looms large. The Nazi Party set out not just to extinguish the Jewish community, but also to destroy its rich and distinctive culture. Those lives cannot be brought back, but the newly formed Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH) is determined that Jewish heritage sites – synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish quarters, communal buildings, and monuments – should be rescued from the neglect and decay that many have suffered over the last 75 years, so many of them having lost their original communities of users.
It is hard to believe, but until the FJH commissioned the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to undertake research, there was no map to show which cities and towns in Europe have significant Jewish heritage and
no inventory of historic synagogues. The Center’s research has identified 3,237 surviving buildings (compared to 17,000 in 1939), of which 718 continue to function as synagogues. They range from the well-preserved 15th-century synagogue in Híjar, Aragon, Spain, where the Jewish community was noted for expertise in parchment-making and bookbinding before the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, to the empty and decaying Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, a place of 25,000 inhabitants in 1939, of whom 17,000 were Jewish, and the birthplace of Michael Marks, of Marks & Spencer fame.
Today, 757 synagogues are deemed to be at risk, which illustrates the scale of the task facing the FJH in its mission to ‘celebrate and honour Europe’s lost Jewish communities’ and rescue these emblematic buildings as ‘powerful places of education’ offering ‘valuable insights into Jewish life and its impact on wider society’. In pursuit of this aim, the JFH has purchased the former synagogue in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. This prominent, purpose-built, Grade II-listed building was constructed in the 1870s by a community that was growing and prospering from south Wales’ industrial expansion, but which declined and migrated elsewhere in the 20th century as the region’s industry contracted. The synagogue was sold in 1983 and has stood empty for 16 years, but will now be restored to create a Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre.
In Glasgow, a Scottish Jewish Heritage Centre is being created with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in the 18th-century Garnethill Synagogue, built about the same time as the Merthyr synagogue (1879-1881), in flamboyant Moorish Byzantine style. This same architectural influence can be seen in another of the FJH’s projects, the restoration of the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, Turkey, one of the cities where Jews expelled from Spain found a refuge after 1492. The project, funded by the Izmir Development Agency and the Kiriaty Foundation, is part of a broader vision to restore all nine of the city’s synagogues and create a Jewish Cultural Quarter and a museum celebrating the Sephardic Jewish tradition and its manifestation in the Ottoman Empire.
More than 20 major new museums are due to open their doors for the first time in the next 12 months, showing that even if some of the world’s most prestigious museums do give up major parts of their collections deemed to have been stolen or looted in the past, there will be no shortage of places around the world to celebrate human creativity and ingenuity. The Grand Egyptian Museum (also known as GEM and the Giza Museum) is set to be the world’s largest archaeological museum when it opens in 2021; it will display the complete Tutankhamun collection, among its many other artefacts from ancient Egypt.
Eagerly awaited too is the unveiling in December 2020 of the Humboldt Forum, in the heart of Berlin, where the building itself – fusing contemporary design with the excavated remains (in the basement) of the 15th-century Berlin Palace and its baroque successor, the Hohenzollern Royal Palace of 1689 to 1713 – will be as much an attraction as the renowned collections of ethnological and Asian art. Described as Germany’s equivalent to the British Museum, the museum has the world’s second largest number of Benin sculptures (see above), and so is likely to face the same sort of pressures for the restitution of objects acquired through Germany’s former colonial rule.
Perhaps it is safer to look forwards rather than back: that is what Dubai’s Museum of the Future aims to do, with its displays exploring the technologies of tomorrow, set in a building that incorporates the latest in green technology. Or you could focus on a topic that gives joy to millions: the new National Museum of African American Music, Nashville, Tennessee, is the first of its kind, built to celebrate over 50 different music styles inspired by and created by African American musicians, from classical to jazz and country to hip hop, with exhibits that will include the instruments and clothes owned by Nat King Cole and Whitney Houston, among others.
PHOTO: 2020 © Trustees of the British Museum.