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Museums around the world are offering virtual tours; Nigeria should – Ibekwe

The International Museum Day (IMD) is an international day held annually on or around May 18, coordinated by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). To commemorate this year’s event, the Nsukka art school, in collaboration with the Institute of African Studies, organised an exhibition. Ugonna Ibekwe, an aspiring art historian, performance artist, and painter who is currently undergoing a formal education in fine art at the Nsukka art school, speaks to Desmond Okon on the significance of this global event to art in Nigeria. Excerpts:

Could you shed some light on the International Museum Day?

The International Museum Day, or IMD, started in 1977. It is an international day held on or around May 18 every year, coordinated by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Every year a theme is picked by the ICOM and activities of different museums, galleries and organizations revolve around the selected theme, each body modifying it to its specific challenges as well as the message it intends to address.

How have museums contributed to the development of arts in Nigeria?

ICOM defines a museum as a “non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”. This definition covers the basic role of the museum not minding location and time.

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Museums in Nigeria play a very important role. Nigeria is made up of different cultures and ethnic groups, and culture influences art. One will expect the collection of different forms of artefacts and arts dating back before, during and after the colonial era. Classification and verification of such collections is the repository of the art historian and art museums. This country has a record number of well-known museums, each serving specific and general purposes. For example, the National War Museum in Umuahia serves the specific purpose of preservation of data from the civil war of 1967-1970. Collections in this museum range from armoured cars, the Biafran fractional distillation column to several pictures of the war.

Some other museums around the country open to public viewing include the Benin City National Museum located in the city centre on King’s Square. This museum has a significant number of artefacts related to the Benin Empire such as terracotta, bronze figures and cast iron pieces. Nigerian National Museum located at Onikan, Lagos Island, has a notable collection of Nigerian art, including pieces of statuary and carvings and archaeological and ethnographic exhibits. There is the Ulli Beier Museum in Osogbo; there is the Slave Trade Museum in Duke Town, Calabar, among others.

Why do you think the celebration of International Museum Day is important?

The International Museum Day is important because, globally, it provides the opportunity for museum professionals to meet the public and alert them to the challenges that museums face; raising awareness on the role museums play in the development of our contemporary society. For example, while I was aware of the National War Museum in Umuahia, Abia State, I was totally unaware that there was a National Museum of Colonial History in Aba, yet this is the city where I grew up. Also, the existence of such museums as the Yemisi Shyllon Museum helps bridge the gap between the old and the contemporary art forms.

Many of the people living in museum locations don’t know about these museums existing around them or their importance. So this is why this day must be given more value in this country and I recommend that the government creates a comprehensive updated website of our cultural heritage and tourism locations. Schools should also review their excursion plans to include museums.

What is your view on the theme for this year’s International Museum Day?

This year’s theme, “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine”, is really elaborate and a call to duty for all museum professionals and communities to create, imagine and share new practices, consider creating new business models for cultural institutions and innovative solutions for the social, economic and environmental challenges of the present. For me, I think the most important aspect of this call will be to revolutionise our minds to embrace technological advancements. This will enable more museum curators to take a more creative and lucrative approach to their profession, and abolishing or modernising the old concepts and patterns of doing this, especially now that the museums no longer have full control over the use of cameras within the museum space.

While some museums have embraced this new development and now offer virtual tours, we are yet to see any museum in Nigeria step up to this new development. This is one aspect I will be recommending to the museum communities in Nigeria to look into it. It’s not a bad idea if we take the lead as the first African country to have virtual museums.

The Nsukka art school in collaboration with the Institute of African Studies organised an exhibition to commemorate this year’s International Museum Day. How did this exhibition promote the awareness of IMD?

The Institute of African Studies in collaboration with the Nsukka Art School and Archaeology Department promoted the IMD through a lecture delivered by Cliff Nwanna, a professor from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. The presentation was on “Museum in context: tradition and innovation”, and then the other lecture by Prof Pat Okpoko on “Museum and the public in the 21st century”.

Also, there was an exhibition of a collection of artefacts by Louis Nnamchi, a reverend father, which he acquired while doing priestly ministry around Enugu State over the past 30 years. It was another way they tried to sharpen the perspective of the society, especially the religious groups and their representatives, on their outlook towards these sculptures left behind from time past.

Meanwhile, as the augments for the return of our cultural artefacts gain more ground, I will recommend that the museum community in Nigeria use the opportunity to explore their preparedness to receive our lost artefacts.

Do you think the expectations of the event and exhibition were achieved?

Anyone who followed the programme would have ended up having a greater understanding of the value of the museum and, more importantly, a global view of his or her roots as relating to the past, the present and the future.

Personally, the whole experience of visiting the Institute of African Studies and seeing the real artefacts from the static, two-dimensional images that I have seen online gave me a whole new experience and exclusive feel.

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