By Bayo Olupohunda
I have always paid frequent visits to the National Museum, located in the serene Onikan area of Lagos Island. Those rare visits, which have been by open invitations from artists and other culture practitioners, who have held a few exhibitions and staged events in the facility against all odds and in the face of severe deprivation faced by this clan of Nigerian artists often with no form of support from government or the Museum, which is supposed to play such roles.
Those visits have also afforded me opportunity to reflect on the state and management of the country’s national culture house critical to the repositioning and re-branding of its much battered image of which the “orphaned” culture sector must play a pivotal role.
With about two hours to the start of an event I was to attend at the Muson Centre, whch is close by, I decided to visit the facility for the umpteenth time just to “kill time” by walking round the premises and not to see anything of interest because I was sure there would not be anything exciting. The artifacts in the place I had seen over-and- over and I was sure nothing of interests had been collected of late. The day was Tuesday, October 6, 2009.
From the gate of the facility, you conjure a picture of what inside would look like. Inside the confines of the colonial gate house that serves as the security post, you sighted a group of middle aged, dour-looking and shabbily dressed gatemen looking very bored. You peeped inside to register your presence, but they hardly noticed, as they gathered round what, looked like a large bowl of garri, (a local staple), soaked in water with some dried fish in a flat plate which they devoured with much gusto.
They barely looked up to see me standing at the door of the gate house. Almost immediately, a car drove in to the closed gate blaring its horn for several seconds. Still standing there, I called their attention to the car at the gate and one of the men dragged himself up reluctantly, muttering under his breathe what sounded like “these people should stay at home”. He hurriedly opened the gate and issued out a crumpled ticket to the visitor and scurried back inside to resume his lunch, almost knocking me out of the way.
As I moved into the premises, I surveyed the entire ground. To the left is a wide expanse of space that also doubled as the car park. A sign board welcomed visitors to the facility but wait, the email address displayed on the board was a yahoo address! (firstname.lastname@example.org). I was scandalised. I wondered why a government establishment such as the National Museum of Nigeria, critical to the image and preservation of our national heritage should have an email with a yahoo address. Hardly a way to re-brand if you ask me.
And to think that the yahoo address was brazenly displayed on a huge sign post for visitors to see. The facility does not even have a website. This I found out later when I tried to search this important national monument online. As I walked further into the premises, I discovered that the makeshift building housing the limousine in which General Murtala Muhammmed was assassinated had been pulled down.
I know that the eyesore makeshift has been brought down more than a year ago. I moved further into the lobby that housed the reception and a billboard which announced the Museum as “the symbol of power and authority in traditional Nigerian culture” welcomed you into the museum proper. Here you encountered some museum staff at the entrance lounging lazily and engaged in loud bantering. (a typical civil service pastime)
This group of mainly ladies was busy doing “buying and selling” at the entrance. They were oblivious of visitors’ presence. Then some group of foreigners walked in, joining those of us already at the lobby. They looked very excited and I think they were tourists because their accent also gave them away as Europeans, probably from the Eastern bloc.
And almost immediately as they arrived, the drama began. In the midst of the arrival of these foreign visitors, this group of very unprofessional museum workers continued in their bantering. Thinking I was a staff, one of the visitors approached me for assistance but I quickly directed him towards the women still engaged in their loud bantering. From the blue, one of the women whipped out a bundle of ticket and asked us to buy so we could do a tour of the museum. Each ticket according to her was to cost N200.
I found this attitude of the museum reception really disturbing. This woman did not make any attempt to welcome the visitors; all she was interested in was to just sell the ticket after which she joined her group. After the tickets were bought by the white tourists, another drama played out.
The tour guide was nowhere to be found which led to another round of waiting. This type of attitude is what you find in most government establishment in this country. Now, the museum workers have shown how unprofessional they could be. Even to foreigners! So much for re-branding! I thought I saw disgust written all over their faces.
Eventually, the tour guide arrived and having bought my ticket which was I did out of curiosity, I joined the group and we all went inside. As we were about to begin the tour, the almighty PHCN struck, throwing the room into pitch darkness. It took a while for the generator to come up again.
So we tried to find our way around. In the meantime, I managed to squeeze out some form of conversation with one of the tourists who told me he thought Nigeria has a vibrant culture sector. But he reserved his comment about our museum. He revealed that it was difficult to find any information about Nigeria online, including this museum when they were planning their visit. So we managed to see all the artifacts on display and now I experienced some vertigo and I was glad the tour was over. I hurried out of the dark room which was thrown into darkness again before we could finish the tour. I immediately, detached myself from the group and went on to appreciate the artifacts embedded against the wall in the corridors of the museum. The ones I still find most fascinating are the fading black and white pictures titled” Old Lagos”. These were old pictures of colonial and post colonial pictures of Lagos before the present rot set it. The pictures were donated to the museum by Eko Foundation.
Most of the offices in the museum have become dilapidated and dingy. Walls are cracking and the paints have all worn off. As I moved round in the company of the white folks who by now had joined me along the corridor having been left alone by the tour guide, I felt some kind of shame. The workers move about aimlessly, some were seen dozing in the offices, really majority I saw looked on, disinterestedly. They cut a picture of unmotivated staff waiting for the day to end so they can scurry home. And scurry home they did.
Outside in the premises, the museum kitchen food, which is supposed to serve the best of Nigerian cuisines, looked empty. I was told visitors hardly eat there because the food is over-priced. I wondered, why the museum management thought it wise to have just one food vendor in that vast space called the museum kitchen. I am sure a cabal has monopolized the culinary enterprise.
In the vast space inside the compound, you also notice that there is only one private art shop in the entire premises with the name Biodun Omolayo Gallery. This contrasts sharply with other museums I have seen elsewhere. I think there should be a dozen licensed art shops and craft makers in the National Museum. This will allow for visitors to appreciate and buy souvenirs with Nigeria motifs and small carvings as take home for their loved ones.
What is the rationale for having just one art shop inside a National Museum in a country of 140 million people bustling with talented artists and a vibrant art and culture sector? As presently constituted, the Museum is uninspiring, boring and very drab and does not reflect the vibrancy of our culture?
Cultural events, exhibitions and other events are very rare in the museum. By contrast, I goggled the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C, The British Museum London, the New York Museum of Natural and American History, and the ancient Dahomey Kingdom Museum in Parakou, Benin Republic which I have personally visited and found out that upcoming events and calendar are lined up to 2011. And this are done mainly in partnerships with the artists and the private sector.
So what is wrong with having events in our National Museums? The front office at the Lagos Museum does not even have brochures and any printed information of events for visitors yet according to the information pasted on a bulletin board inside the museum; they have recorded about 237 foreign visitors mostly from Europe and the Americas between January and August this year.
So what do these visitors learn or take home as souvenirs about Nigeria when they cannot even get updated and printed information about an important monument like the museum housing the best of Nigeria cultures? Could there be a better way to re-brand the country in the minds of several foreign visitors that visit the museum?
There seem not to be any synergy among artists and the management of the museum? How come there is a vacuum between culture practitioners and the Museum? As the situation stands now, the National Museums all over Nigeria are being run in a moribund way other government agencies are being run. No vibrancy or drive, no innovation, no new things happening, Just civil servants resuming and closing work every day. Can visitors find evidence eg (pictures) documenting Nigeria history in the last twenty five years?
I spotted a group of students from Babcock University and MKO Abiola Polytechnic loitering around the premises after what seems like another boring routine. At the rear of the building is a walled compound and printed on the wall are names that include Ford Foundation and others hardworking and prominent names in the culture sector. They are meant to have “donated something” to the Museum. But all I saw was an empty walled compound. Is the Museum sitting on their donation?
Now I have had enough. But again and again, the Museum will always live up to my expectation as a place where nothing happens. Just a civil service enclave. Imagine that beautiful national monument in such a fine environment lying prostrate. Ideally, the Museum should be a hub for culture workers and artists practicing their art in Lagos and beyond. Imagine the type of collaborations such a fine place could attract from Nigeria and overseas with the right management and vision.
In other climes, the Museum in Lagos and others will be a hub for artists’ empowerment, development and the encouragement of industry in local arts and craft. Promotion of a strong cultural heritage through intense local and international exhibitions and capacity building, through seminars and conferences, fellowships, internships, residency programmes and various school programmes with strong private sector funding and participation. May be these dreams will be achievable by another generation of committed art and culture administrators. Finally, I left the Museum disillusioned. But I know I will be back