David Adjaye Releases Plans For Benin’s Edo Museum of West African Art

Museum architect David Adjaye has released his plans for Benin's new Edo Museum of West African Art, which hopes to reunite the famous Benin Bronzes.

Nov 13, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Gates and Portals from EMOWAA, Adjaye Associates; David Adjaye, Adjaye Associates.

Adjaye Associates, the firm of the well-known architect David Adjaye, has released the designs for the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. The museum will be built next to the Royal Palace of Oba. EMOWAA will be a unique project incorporating historic ruins and green spaces to create a home for Benin’s heritage. With this new museum, Nigeria will also exercise increased pressure on European countries to restitute looted objects like the Benin Bronzes.

EMOWAA And The Benin Bronzes

View of the main entrance and courtyard of EMOWAA, Adjaye Associates.

The Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) will be situated next to Oba’s Palace in the Benin City of Nigeria. Its exhibition will house West African art and artifacts of both historic and contemporary interest.

The EMOWAA will be home to the ‘Royal Collection’, the most comprehensive display of Benin Bronzes in the world. As a result, this will become the place where Benin’s looted heritage – now in international collections- will be reunited and made available to the public.

The EMOWAA will play a key role in the effort to repatriate collections like the Benin Bronzes. The Bronzes date back to the 13th century and are now scattered throughout various European museums. Only the British Museum in London has 900 pieces. These were acquired during the British sack of the city of Benin in 1897.

Benin Relief plaque, 16th-17th century, The British Museum.

However, many European museums currently hold a wide range of colonial African artifacts other than the Bronzes. A great number of these, come from Nigeria but also other African countries.

In October, the French Parliament voted in favor of returning two dozen artifacts to Benin and a sword and scabbard to Senegal. Nevertheless, France is still moving very slowly to repatriate the 90,000 African works in its collections. Also last month, a report in the Netherlands asked the Dutch government to return more than 100,000 looted colonial objects.

An important project in the restitution race is Digital Benin; a collaborative project between European institutions to catalog and document objects from Benin in international collections.

Adjaye’s Designs

EMOWAA’s Ceramics gallery, rendering, Adjaye Associates.

The construction of Adjaye’s plans will begin in 2021. The first phase of the museum’s making will be a monumental archaeological project. The Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), the British Museum, and Adjaye Associates will cooperate to excavated the area under the museum’s proposed site. According to the British Museum, this will “be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City”.

Historic buildings discovered during the excavations will be retained to offer a richer museum experience. Furthermore, EMOWAA will have a large public garden of indigenous flora. The galleries will also visually communicate with the city and archaeological site outside to provide a better understanding of Benin’s history.

The design of the museum draws inspiration from the history of Benin city. The galleries will include pavilions from fragments of reconstructed historic compounds. These will allow objects to be displayed in their pre-colonial context. David Adjaye said about the museum:

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“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.”

Gates and Portals from EMOWAA, Adjaye Associates.

He also noted that: “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 recontextualization of artefacts. Decoupling from the Western museum model, the EMOWAA will perform as a reteaching tool – a place for recalling lost collective memories of the past to instil an understanding of the magnitude and importance of these civilizations and cultures”.

Who Is David Adjaye?

Sir David Adjaye is an award-winning Ghanaian-British architect. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2017. In the same year, TIME Magazine included him in the 100 most influential people of the year.

His practice, Adjaye Associates, has offices in London, New York, and Accra. Adjaye is the architect behind museums such as New York’s Studio Museum, Harlem and Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey.

However, his largest project is The National Museum of African American History & Culture, a Smithsonian Institution museum, which opened at the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 2016.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.