by Zohra KhanDec 13, 2021
Located in Benin city in Nigeria, the newly named Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) has been commissioned with a vision to rediscover Benin’s immense and significant historic past. The site for EMOWAA is located over a major archaeological excavation site, and the development of the museum by Adjaye Associates is part of the larger EMOWAA archaeology project, constituting essential early phase work for the EMOWAA building itself. The project spearheads the ‘Rediscovering the History of Benin' initiative announced in Benin City with the same set of objectives. The archaeology project commences in 2021 and will go on for five years, investigating the history and buried artefacts of the erstwhile Kingdom of Benin beneath the site of the museum, which the EMOWAA building will eventually display. To fully understand the sub-surface remains and to help target excavations, the fieldwork and focus of excavations will be at the site of the museum and in the immediate surroundings using geophysical surveying and advanced technologies such as LIDAR.
The city of Benin, home to the ancient kingdom of the same name, is one of the most important and powerful pre-colonial states of West Africa, and is known today for its castings in brass and bronze, known as the Benin Bronzes, apart from artefacts in ivory, coral and wood. The museum intends to ignite the open dialogue on Benin’s history, culture and politics, also influenced by the city’s British invasion and destruction in 1897, apart from housing the 'Royal Collection', the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes and dedicated galleries for contemporary arts. Adjaye Associates will also consult on the EMOWAA project in collaboration with The Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), and the British Museum, along with designing the museum. Local communities of Benin, the Benin Royal Court, the Government of Edo State, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) will partner on the monumental project.
Adjaye Associates, led by Sir David Adjaye, has presented the initial concept of the museum and will be undertaking further design, urban planning work on the site, and the assembly of a team of professionals in Nigeria to oversee the project to fruition. The concept for their design stems from using “archaeology as a means of connecting the new museum into the surrounding landscape, by revitalising and incorporating the surviving remains of the walls, moats and gates of the historic city, seen throughout the modern city today”. Apart from the new construction, the firm also recognises the importance of the archaeological remains preserved below the site, for which careful excavations would need to be carried out to facilitate the new museum’s foundations. This may well in itself be seen as a symbolic act of renewing, with the new museum’s foundations springing from an ethos of historical wealth below the ground. The design also intends to fully retain in their original position, evidences of historic buildings including walls and gates to proudly showcase as part of the visitor experience of the museum.
Positioned adjacent to the Oba’s Palace, the new EMOWAA draws from, reflects on and partially reinvents its historical architectural typologies, featuring a shaded courtyard in the form of a public garden. The court harbours a variety of indigenous flora, doubling up as a welcoming green environment suitable for gatherings, ceremonies and events. The galleries for exhibits float above the gardens as elevated volumes, which is essentially an inversion of the inward looking courtyard typology. The pavilions derive their vertical form from preserved elements and fragments from reconstructed historic compounds. Apart from lending an unmistakable additional layer of rich context for the artefacts to be placed in, they offer an experiential, more immersive narrative for the museum space for patrons to indulge in.
Announcing the details of the EMOWAA, the RIBA Gold Medal winning architect Sir David Adjaye stated this in an official release: "I am humbled and deeply inspired to design the new EMOWAA, a project that will establish a new museum paradigm for Africa. 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 re-contextualisation 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 civilisations and cultures".