Thursday, 7th December 2023

Scenes of forgotten past: Nigerians ditch ageing museums for cinemas, recreation centres

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
11 August 2023   |   4:10 am
Museums all over the world collect, preserve, and display objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.

National War Museum, Umuahia

Museums and cultural interpretation centres are important tourism and social powerhouses globally. COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily grounded globetrotters reechoed the significance of unique local attractions, with attendant spike in patronage in the post-pandemic era. Conspicuously lagging in the boom of the soft economy are the museums and tourists’ attraction centres in Nigeria. GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR writes that they all belong to a relic past of poor funding, mismanagement, and poor understanding of sociocultural preserves.

Museums all over the world collect, preserve, and display objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.

They are not only beneficial for students who can learn about art, culture, science, technology, among others, as per their interests, museums are key contributors to the well-being of communities and create a cascading effect that fosters positive change.

They also contribute to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by supporting climate action, fostering inclusivity, tackling social isolation, and improving mental health.

Every historical site/museum has a story to tell, and these narratives connect the past, present, and future.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), museums and heritage sites are vital sources for culturally and socially sustainable development.

Notwithstanding the opportunities offered by these heritage sites, visits to the cinemas have continued to surpass that of museums.

Available data from the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria (CEAN) showed that cinema admissions in 2022 were a bit lower than the previous year. Specifically, cinemas recorded 3,188,732 yearly admissions in 2022 compared to 3,239,336 annual admissions in 2021.

Nigerians equally expended a record-breaking N6.94bn on movies in 2022, over N2.2bn more than the N4.7bn generated revenue in 2021.

Contrastingly, Nigerian museums barely record visits of 100,000 yearly, with the National Museum recording between 30,000 to 32,000 visitors every year.

Just last month, N482m was generated as revenue across all cinemas in Nigeria. Museums cannot boast of such patronage.

UNESCO conducted a widely cited survey in 2009 that claimed Nigeria had the second-largest film industry in the world after India, producing almost twice as many films as the US per year, around 700 on average. Although its revenues are not on a par with Bollywood and Hollywood, Nollywood still generates $590m annually, according to the Nigeria’s Film Industry: A Potential Gold Mine report published by the United Nations Department of Global Communications.

Up until a few years ago, the quality level of an average Nollywood film didn’t even come close to that of its American counterparts. Only recently has the desire to make films on a par with other film industries, in order to compete on a global level, seen a surge in production standards.

The international agency said museums and interpretation centres play an important role in connecting these sites to different audiences, as educational and social powerhouses. They are active agents for heritage preservation, scientific research, and education.

The car in which General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated

“Bringing together catalysts of sustainable development, this synergy between World Heritage sites and museums has the potential to actively involve local communities and build on their knowledge and skills to promote local cultural assets and bolster employment, thus increasing their well-being,” said UNESCO.

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) reported that though international arrivals massively dipped in the COVID-19 era, international tourism receipts grew back to hit the $1 trillion mark in 2022, growing 50 per cent in real terms compared to 2021, driven by the important rebound in international travel. International visitor spending reached 64 per cent of pre-pandemic levels (-36 per cent compared to 2019, measured in real terms).

By region, Europe enjoyed the best results in 2022 with nearly $550 billion in tourism receipts, or 87 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Africa recovered 75 per cent of its pre-pandemic receipts, the Middle East 70 per cent and the Americas 68 per cent. Due to prolonged border shutdowns, Asian destinations earned about 28 per cent. Most of these arrivals are based on the level of cultural and museum landscapes development.

Except for the likes of Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa that top the list of most-visited countries in Africa, Nigeria is rarely in the picture of destination choices for tourists.

Tourists’ sites aplenty
Recall that in Nigeria, cultural tourism was identified as an area of national importance as far back as 1977 during the Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos. However, deliberate plans and efforts to develop this sector have tended to proceed in piecemeal arrangements.

Nigeria currently has about 52 museums, 65 monuments and sites – a record of some sorts – but largely in sorry states. This number and its ugly scenes have not translated into an increase in the visitors’ database nor is there a diversification of the traditional visitor profile, marked by high income and a high level of education.

An inventory of Nigerian museums today will reveal a sad and pitiful treatment of the country’s historical monuments and heritage.

From the National War Museum, Umuahia, Abia State, to Colonial History Museum, Lokoja, Kogi State, which specialises in Nigeria’s pre-independence era, mostly British-rule antiquities and photographs, and Slave History Museum, Calabar, Cross River State, a lot can be learnt.

However, a first-time visitor to Lokoja in search of the National Museum of Colonial History with very high expectations may be disappointed as the facilities, location and the edifice have become shadows of their past colonial glory.

This is because the colonial relics of interest have been reduced to ancient photographs with no objects that may encourage the sightseer to spend extra time.

“Museums play a leading role in the success of the tourism of these countries, attracting millions of international and domestic visitors,” said Olawale Adesoji, who first visited the National Museum, Onikan, in 1979.

According to him, “museums showcase the best of their nation’s history and culture to the widest possible audiences and captivate visitors with objects that tell stories of the world.”

Dearth of patronage
Today, The Guardian gathered that the average Nigerian museum rarely attracts more than 2000 visitors every month.

According to statistics available, the National Museum of Unity in Enugu received less than 2000 visitors in the first four months of the year. In January, there were just 101 visitors, February 476 visitors, March had 1024 and April 253. That is, there were just 1860.

Lamenting this situation, Aloysius Nduka Duru, curator of National Museum of Unity, Enugu, said the situation is giving everyone concern.

He said, in Enugu, the list of their challenges is long, but most pressing is the “lack of power supply. We need a 50kva generator for standby power supply. We also need sponsors for our programmes and adequate training of staff.”

While saying that the museums in the country face the same situation of low patronage, he called for aggressive reorientation of all concerned. His words:

“There is apathy due to ignorance of what the museum is. People see the museum as a fetish place. There is also an inferiority complex about our culture.”

He suggested more public enlightenment, sponsorship drive and promotional activities that will center on culture and tourism. Duru said inclusion of museum studies in school curriculum will help the country’s museums.

Statue at National Museum, Lagos

The Guardian checks revealed that the only time visitors thronged the place are during the holidays and excursion exercises.

The National Museum, Lagos, which is the flagship museum in the country, faces almost the same situation.

A tour guide said on the average, there are between 30,000 to 32,000 visitors every year, which a tour guide who refused to be quoted, revealed recently. He said there are low and peak periods. The highest visitors to the museum are students and they come when schools are in session.

At N500 per ticket, the gallery will be making between N5 million and N6 million yearly from visitors. But the number of visitors has decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Museum recorded 42, 889 visitors in 2018, up from 41,826 visitors received in 2017. Of the figure in 2018, 34,713 are students; 7,249 Nigerian adults; and 927 foreigners.

“Our patronage in 2018 was not encouraging because we had about 1,063 differences between 2017 and 2018.

Comparatively, Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) research has it that more than 106.5 million people visit the top 20 museums in the world every year.

The report said the Louvre, in Paris, France had 8.7 million visitors in 2017.

Louvre Paris is historically the world’s most visited cultural institution. Last year, the museum reported attendance of 7.8 million. It is still down 19 per cent from the pre-pandemic 2019, but a healthy 170-per cent increase over 2021. Also, the museum staff decided to cap daily admissions at 30,000 visitors.

Also, the National Museum of China, Beijing, attracted 7.3 million visitors.

This enormous building, which is located on the east side of Tiananmen Square and covers a staggering 192,000 square metres, has a vast array of historic Chinese art, artefacts, porcelain, traditional furniture and more.

While the National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA attracted 6.9 million visitors.

The British Museum, London, had 6.8 million visitors and in 2017, the Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome had 6 million visitors.

As a culture purist and lecturer at the University of East Anglia, Dr. Sola Adeyemi, puts it, “once a people lose their own peculiarity and their culture, there may be nothing else left to offer.”

He noted that countries in America and Europe, who retained their vibrant cultural practices that are also of African provenance attract more tourists’ vis-à-vis contributing enormously to foreign exchange earnings with arts and religion.

In African countries, monotypes of carnival, music, artwork, monoliths and so on, which depicts the cultural characteristics that “have touristic value and are socially and economically useful are traduced and demonised through negative acculturation by sectarian activism, which has severely hampered tourists’ arrivals and subsequently slow down the speed of tourism development especially in Nigeria,” said Sunday Effiong, a tourism practitioner.

Poor funding
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) was established in 1979 to collect, document, conserve and present national cultural properties to the public for the purpose of education, enlightenment and entertainment.

Director General/CEO NCMM, Prof. Abba Isa Tijani, said inadequate funding was the major problem facing the Commission, and prior to 2014, NCMM was receiving N60 million a month as overhead but with the coronavirus pandemic, it reduced to N7 million!

According to him, “now, we have written for another 160 monuments for the president’s approval and two world heritage sites. We are endowed with cultural heritage, we have so much that we don’t have enough outlets to display and enable our people to identify with them.”

He lamented there are objects in storage across the museums, but spaces to display them are lacking, adding that the galleries are not good and spacious enough to exhibit.

“There is a need to upgrade our existing museum and build new ones to be able to display the richness of what we have. It is time for us to start preparing for repatriated artefacts,” he remarked.

According to a curator in one of the South-east states, the greatest challenge of NCMM is funding.

“Proper funding of the Commission will lead to the resuscitation of Nigeria’s museums, monuments and sites to compete with others around the world, create employment and as well boost the country’s economy, “ he said.

He also said: “Research and training are not funded, and museums are run like the civil service in this country. It should not operate that way if we are to make a headway. It is for this reason that fanatical interpretations of Western religions constitute a major harm to tourism development in Africa and Nigeria in particular.”

A staff of the National Museum, Lagos told The Guardian, under condition of anonymity, “it is not that the museums do not know what to do, but they don’t have the wherewithal. The museums are under-funded.

They must be properly funded to play their role in society.”

The staff lamented, “If the authority that ought to fund these institutions do not come forward to do that, because they do not understand that it is necessary to have our historical artefacts, the private organisations should come in and assist in this work.

“The problem with the country is not the lack of museum structures, but the financial capability to make them functional. What we should be talking about is funding to upgrade, renovate and effectively exhibit our cultural patrimony in our current holdings.”

He stressed there are many things the Commission would have done, but funding remains a challenge.

Funding for the museums come solely from the Federal Government, a recurrent expenditure that is part of the country’s huge yearly civil service burden on the nation’s increasing infrastructure deficit.

Way forward
ON possible ways museums can boost tourism as discovered in other countries, stakeholders, and watchers of events in the Commission pointed to year-long, relay exhibitions, which will involve all the museums.

According to an artist, Fola Aliyu, “they have an advantage of the euphoria surrounding the return of the Benin Bronzes. Let them curate the best of what they have alongside the returned Benin Bronzes and other stolen artefacts. People will come out to see the shows.”

Nation Museum of Unity, Enugu

For Israel Eboh, a theatre arts practitioner and president National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), who grew up knowing what the Lagos Museum was, “what we have to address as a possible solution is the marketability of the museum and innovativeness of the administration to enhance its revenue base and open up job prospects.”

He continued, “we have to identify the symptoms and embark on the restitution of the inherent value of museum activities particularly in terms of education and tourism.”

He pointed to the JK Randle Centre that is opposite the National Museum, which after commissioning has been locked.

Eboh such actions do not help to boost tourism. He also called on the education unit to conduct outreach programmes in schools and organise educational tours for schools on a weekly basis.

He said this would solve the problem of perception, especially by religious bigots who discourage members of the younger generation from patronising cultural events.

“These are people who slam the label of fetishism on cultural institutions like the theatre and museum, whereas their counterparts abroad are actively involved in heritage matters for their educational values,” said the culture activist and veteran journalist, Ben Tomoloju, during a chat on how to deepen interest in Nigerian museums.

He said: “We need a full dose of cultural re-orientation in Nigeria to right these wrongs. One may also add that visitation to museums should be aggressively pursued as a major co-curricular activity of schools and marketed as such by the educational unit of the institution.”

Stakeholders also called for digitisation of Nigerian museums, as private galleries have begun to do. “But we cannot do so without proper funds,” said a tour guide at the Lagos Museum. “The IT section will give you more details about efforts so far.”