Ashaye: With better funding, Nigeria can make huge revenue from museums, bigger than oil
Ibironke Ashaye has contributed to the development of Nigerian museums, especially in the areas of exhibition and documentation of cultural collections across the country. The former Chair, Committee on Inventory of Collections in the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), curated the historical pieces of the renowned, traditional art collector, Femi Akinsanya, at the just-concluded African Culture and Design Festival (ACDF) 2017 held in Lagos. She spoke to OMIKO AWA on museums and the challenges facing the sector
How did you get into museum management, which most people describe as a dead zone?
I have always been interested in archaeology right from my university days. Besides, I studied history and archaeology. So, when government was recruiting officers from the university, I indicated interest and was employed in 1976. I worked with the museum for 35 years, where I rose from Curator One to Director. Within this period, I have worked in four different museums. Aside the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, I verifiably started the others in IIorin, Ife, Ibadan and Abuja. I worked at these places and retired until this opportunity came for me to handle this project.
What are some of the challenges facing the development of museums in the country?
When I look at Nigerians and the Europeans, I must tell you that the Europeans value some of these antiquities more than we do. My experience in Europe, where I had my post-graduate degrees and worked in six different museums tells me this. The whites value these archival materials more. In fact, they hold them in high esteem. But in Africa, especially Nigeria, many of us see them as being demonic and have to avoid them. The Christians would not want to touch these items, including some of the museum staff. You will hear them say they cannot enter the store, where these objects are kept. The major problem remains that we have not come to the realisation that these items are part of our beliefs and traditions. Our current social behaviour is not commendable because we have abandoned our traditional beliefs. Our social control is weak, which is the reason we are experiencing all sort of things now. In those days, members of the Ogboni society used to serve as court marshals and fierce-looking masquerades do come out to mention names of people who have committed one evil or the other and such people are usually disgraced. The Oro also exposed evil deeds, but all these are now lacking and the society is seriously paying the price.
Secondly, we are losing huge sums of money in revenue for not properly preserving them for tourists to see. It is a good way of also telling our history.
Members of these secret societies are also themselves corrupt. How can the situation be redressed?
When you say secret societies, you should know that there is the real Ogboni and the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity. The traditional Ogboni is the real one; it is different from the Reformed Ogboni and if you want to know what is happening in society, go to them and they will tell you because they still exist the way they are. Some of their emblems are with us in the museum. They have ways of passing judgment on members and non-members and also sanitising society. I am not a member, but from my interactions and observations with some of their members, I have come to conclude that they keep their rules to the letter and have great regard for one another. What most people, including some museum staff, do not know is that these antiquities have lost their potency. They are no longer what they used to be when they were in shrines and objects of worship. This is the reason anybody, including women and children, can touch them. When I was at the National Museum, Lagos, I worked in the store and in the store were sponges some people have used to bath members of their dead relatives and other loved ones. I was not afraid of them and other similar items.
Of what value are such items in the museum?
Such items have some positive connotation in the traditional setting. The sponge they used to bath my mother, who died at the age of 95, was given to us, the children. We were asked to use it, but I never did. Everything has its connotation in the traditional setting, but Christianity is destroying them.
How were you able to keep your Christian faith, while looking over these antiquities, especially as some of your fellow Christians run away from them?
They are two different things. One was there before the other; culture and tradition were there before Christianity. Before Europeans brought Christianity to us, we have been governing ourselves and maintaining orderliness in the society. We should realise that traditionalists call upon their gods and they answers, while Christians, too, call upon theirs and He does the same. So, the two get positive results praying to their Gods.
But Christians are known for keeping records and museums elsewhere have doses of Christian antiquities. Why would local faithful show apathy to museums?
It has to do with the way they are taught. It is the teaching; they believe everything traditional is demonic and should be avoided. But little did they know that the deities operate at different realms. But the real thing is that we should embrace our culture; we cannot run away from it. Your culture is that aspect that makes you what you are.
What is Nigeria losing for not preserving its antiquities?
We are losing our birthright, originality and the things that define who we are. We are losing our moral values, too. When young people see some of the carvings and hear great stories about the legends, they will be able to model their lives after them. Keeping our museums will earn us huge sums of money from tourists and visitors. We can even make good money from them than from oil. The issue is funding and making it visible for people to come and see these items.
Shall we then say colonialization and colonialism were a curse?
No; we cannot say that because the Europeans have different orientation from what we have. The way they value our antiquities is different from the way we take them. While in British museum, I watched a film titled You Hide Me. It talks about the Nigerian and African antiquities, how we are not preserving them.
You were newly employed when Second World Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) was organised. Looking back now, would you say Nigeria benefitted from the event?
FESTAC exposed Nigerian and African arts and culture to the world and we are still reaping from the gains, which now come in the different festivals such as Osun Oshogbo, Arugungun, boat regatta and others across the country. These festivals leveraged on FESTAC and are still leveraging on it till date. Imagine the huge sums of money these festivals generate each time they are hosted. Imagine the direct and indirect income that accrues to the states in term of direct sales of tickets, adverts and sales from other small companies that key into the event. Though many people, especially of Christians think FESTAC brought in a lot of demons from other countries to Nigeria, this is not true. Rather, it showcased some of the attributes of Nigeria to the world and people began to be interested in our arts. You can see some of our antiquities in private hands. And Femi Akinsanya is playing an interventionist role by trying to curtain some of these antiquities in the country so that they are not taken abroad.
According to him, he started collecting them while a student and I am not surprised at this because even in London and other countries, museum started from a private initiative. Individuals kept these antiquities before government took them over. But the problem with us here is that many people do not have interest in keeping antiquities and are not interested in them either.
Why this apathy, when some of them are historical carvings?
This is because they do not know the importance, especially as many associate them with idol worship. Some say they are satanic and see people keeping them in that light.
What is the role of museum in the history of a people?
I was shocked when government removed history from school curriculum. In fact, what those that took the decision failed to realise is that history does not only teach the past, but it opens learners’ minds to what is currently happening around him, which will enable him look into the future and chart a way forward. There are so many people in the past who made great impact in their societies, which only the study of history can make people learn about them, identify with them and bring out how their actions could be of benefit to the present. For instance, one of the works we showcased was Olowe’s work – a door carved in the 16th century. Seeing a man that never saw the four walls of a university coming up with such works should motivate anyone to do more for himself/herslf and the society.
Why are museums not visible?
There are many reasons to this and the most important is the issue of fund. It is not a cheap business and the Ministry of Culture where museums belong is not well-funded. People still believe that culture is all about dancing and showcasing of dresses. But it goes beyond this. If government wants good money from this sector, it should be ready to fund it and encourage private individuals in the business to grow.
Some of these antiquities date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. How have you been able to preserve them from decay and theft?
What goes behind the scene before any exhibition holds is beyond what you see on the surface? Our conservationists are responsible for the cleaning and restoration of the objects. We need chemicals to maintain and make these objects come to shape, which is the reason we want the museums to be properly funded.
How were you able to acquire some of the items?
This is another challenge of its own. Some of the owners of the objects sold them to us and if we refused to buy for lack of fund, they look for alternative arrangement, which most times, would mean sending them abroad where they are paid in hard currency. I must let you know that many of our artifacts and antiquities are leaving our shores through this means. They sell them to the whites, who are always willing to pay them well. Even when we get them from these vendors, it takes long to pay them due to government’s bureaucracy.
Moreover, these objects do not come cheap. But if we must follow the example of Malian government, which some years back, when the people were not selling their antiquities to museums, the museum fashioned a plan, which had to do with their banks, the people and the educational sector. They partnered with the banks to sponsor, at least, a child from the home of any family that would release their antiquity to the museum. This encouraged many people to donate to the national museum. This made acquiring some of the objects they have today easy.
I also want us to know that right now, we are in a crisis because many of these objects are in private hands and shrines. What will happen if there is war or conflict and they are destroyed? This is why government must pay greater attention to museums, empower it to acquire these items from private hands and shrines. During war or conflict, museum would work with the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), an arm of UNESCO that protects cultural goods during armed conflicts. It protects museums and archives, audiovisual supports, libraries, and monuments and sites. This body partners museums, governments and the army to protect these sites. Another thing, which we were doing before, but is no longer done, was to go to these private holders and the shrines and register these objects. It helped to keep track of objects out the museums, know how many they are and also identify the nature of the objects and the locations. There was a case where we registered some masks in five wards in Kwara State and about two weeks after, they were missing. Since we registered the objects, we were invited to aid the investigation.
However, it was unfortunate that the police got back only one, while the one earlier stolen left Nigerian borders before the intervention. The most important thing was that the culprits were caught. If not that we registered them, all the objects in that locality would have disappeared. We registered objects in private homes, communities and shrines. Sometimes, we were invited by communities to do so, as a way of guiding their artefacts against theft.
How were you able to cope in these shrines, as most of them do not entertain women?
There is a lot to it, because these shrines have their own mysteries. There was a shrine in Ilorin, where we went to register their objects, and I took many pictures of the figurines registered, but to my greatest surprise, those pictures disappeared when I got home. We saw them while in the shrine, but outside the shrine, they disappeared. This was a mystery we could not explain.
Couldn’t those pictures have disappeared as a result of a technical fault in your camera?
No; it goes beyond that. The deities did not want us to capture them with our lenses. It is one of the hazards of the job. There are shrines that still have their original powers. The deities are still very potent and our women are always not allowed to go into them. The priests in such shrines would only allow the men in, while the women stay at a safe distance. But the figurines in the museums are no longer potent; they are mere objects, a symbol of what they represent. And with mysteries like this, it would take a while before all our artefacts, especially those that have to do with spirits and spiritualism, be properly documented electronically.