Fig. 1 A photograph of a hair pin called Ozuwa-ivie, found in the inventory of the National Museum Benin City. Photograph: Digital Benin.
Digital Benin Newsletter 2
By Eiloghosa Obobaifo, Research Assistant and Data Steward, Benin City
The first year of the two-year funded project Digital Benin is coming to an end. The team is currently building the first prototype of a database that connects data received from the museum partners of this project. So far, we have received datasets from 119 museums in 18 countries with close to 5000 objects. The next milestone is to complete the data acquisition until the end of the year and to develop a robust search interaction for the webbased catalogue. In parallel, oral history accounts are recorded for the contextualization and grounding for the information received by our museum partners.
Museum-based research in Nigeria
Eiloghosa Obobaifo and Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie conducted in-depth research about objects in the National Museums in Benin City, Owo and Lagos, and consequently digitized catalogue cards with information about objects in their collections standing in relationship to the objects looted in 1897. The following introduces the digitization process as part of the first project phase of Digital Benin:
Museums are the custodians of the cultural heritage of the society, for this reason they are also very important to our project. The first step taken by the Benin team was to identify the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) stations across Nigeria. Out of these stations the National Museum Benin City, National Museum Owo and National Museum Lagos are stations that hold classical Benin objects. Eiloghosa Obobaifo and Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie digitized catalogue cards from these museums and transcribed these into data for the integration into the Digital Benin database that is currently developed by our technical team. In addition we started to create historical content and collect oral traditions such that the significance of these objects to the history, culture and tradition of the Benin people could be appreciated.
During this phase of the project we visited the aforementioned museums where data is not at the moment digitally available. We digitized information for our project in the following way:
Between February 2021 and March 2021 we visited three museums within Nigeria. The National Museum Benin, National Museum Owo and lastly National Museum Lagos. Our focus was on identifying those parts of the collections relevant to Digital Benin. This required (1.) collecting data from their archives and storages, (2.) visiting their libraries and (3.) interacting and engaging with the Museum staff to learn about their insight. They shared their knowledge of the cultural context of these artefacts.
Visiting the Benin Museum, we worked with the curators, who provided us with all the necessary materials. We had access to the acquisitions logbooks, catalogue cards as well as the collections on display and in storage. We were able to go through and photograph the files from 1959 - 1979. Digitizing this data has provided the project with lots of information on Edo/Benin objects. At the National Museum Library, Benin City we found interesting articles of newspaper clippings on the Benin bronzes and the museum’s history.
We proceeded to visit the National Museum Owo in Ondo state, Nigeria. Owo has special ties with the Benin Kingdom and was once its vassal. Today, the pre-colonial relationship is reflected in their artistic patterns/styles, which are similar to that of the Benin people. In Owo, we also engaged with their collections and enjoyed the support of the museum staff. We were, therefore, also able to collect and document data from their logbooks, catalogue cards and inventory.
From Owo we proceeded to the National Museum Lagos where clear information on the subject matter was uncovered in their archive. The storage and inventory were very well arranged which made the search through thousands of catalogue cards to identify Benin artefacts manageable and the orderliness of the storage made our digitalization process efficient.
The next steps: Data Processing
Back in our office in Benin City we are currently in the data processing phase and are transcribing information from over 2000 catalogue cards, logbooks and other digitized material to make them accessible for the users of the database and online catalogue. While transcribing, we give importance to identifying missing information, linking and grouping objects. By connecting the object data transcribed from the National Museums our aim is to contextualize their stories and narratives to objects that have been translocated through the well documented colonial history. We want to present these objects and tell their stories from an indigenous point of view. Through the connection and recontextualization to the objects in the National Museums it is possible to decontextualise them from the western perspective in which they are displayed so far.
One example for this decontextualization of a Western perspective is that Edo terms are only shown in written language (if at all) even though Edo is foremost a spoken language. While transcribing we noticed that a few of the objects were misrepresented as their names were misspelled or omitted, for example Uhunmwunelao, Uhunmwunekhe and Uhunmwunegho were mostly classified as UHUNMWUN without their individual names.This posed a problem of properly identifying an object. We are currently exploring the option to include recordings of vocalization of Edo words in the process of transcribing in order to give certain words the right context. Every language has certain words that are spelt similarly but have different pronunciation and meaning. The inclusion of vocalizations of Edo words or names of the objects would allow a representation in a local cultural context.
Fig. 2 A photograph of objects from the National Museum Lagos. Photograph: Digital Benin
A picture (Fig. 1) of a body ornament called Ozuwa-ivie in Edo language was found in the inventory of the National Museum Benin. It is a hair pin used to decorate the hair of the Oba's wives. It is cast in the form of a circular smooth cup on top of a pin shaped structure. The upper part is serrated with two lines below it and it was used by the Oba's wives for decorating their hair. From records it shows that the object preceded Bendel state and was recorded to be from Mid-western state which Benin City belonged to before the creation of states that later put Benin under Edo state. There is a similar object in the National Museum Lagos, which happens to be a complete body ornament made of bronze with red beads in-laid. They are two hair pins, a finger ring and bracelet or armlet (Fig. 2). The transcription of the information of these ornaments will show that more objects of a similar kind are currently stored in collections outside of Nigeria.
Our Team Here you can find information on the Digital Benin project team as well as find out more about the principal investigators. In July, Gwenlyn Tiedemann joined the project as the Data Engineer, and in October, Imogen Coulson joined as Project Researcher.