Cry Against Digitisaton of Museums

By Solomon Elusoji
The recent call by the Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria to discourage the proposed digitisation of museums in the country might be misplaced and displays a measure of ignorance about the workings of modern culture.

In July 2013, the Imperial War Museum, London closed its doors to update its collections. Signs were put outside the building, notifying visitors that its doors were closed. But, although its physical doors were closed, access to the museum’s collection was still very much open, not just to those in London, but to people across the world. How? Digitisation.

“With museums and other cultural organisations looking to widen access and make it easier for audiences to engage and interact with their collections, giving an international audience the chance to explore some of our content is no mean feat,” a press officer for the Imperial War Museums, Lynsey Martenstyn, wrote in an article published in the Guardian UK. “But the museum’s entire collection is immediately accessible, globally, and at any time of day. Items that were previously only available to those within the museum’s walls are now there for anyone with an internet connection to see, hear, watch and interact with.”

Earlier that year, the museum had made 14,000 sound recordings from its archives freely available online. These sound recordings brought history to life, allowing online users to listen to first hand recollections from the men and women who participated in and lived with the effects of war. It hosted everything from the rather unusual story of a British Red Cross nurse serving with the Russians on the Eastern Front, to more familiar examples like the testimonies of conscientious objectors.

“And the benefits go beyond access,” Lynsey said. “A digitised archive collection is an educational tool too- teachers and academics can access our collections with ease to enrich lessons or their research. It also enhances the audience experience, with visitors able to access items of their choice, before or after their stay, before sharing their favourite artefacts online, by email or over social media with the help of a tweet.”

This, the digitisation of cultural and indigenous knowledge found in museums, has been the norm all over the world. But not in Nigeria, where the arts has been neglected and left to rot.
In May 2012, Akeem Akinwale of the Department of Social Sciences, Landmark University, presented a paper at the 20th anniversary summit of the African Educational Research Network in North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Titled “Digitisation of Indigenous Knowledge for Natural Resources Management in Africa, the paper came to a conclusion that there was a “need for concerted interest in digitisation of African indigenous knowledge to intensify efforts geared towards natural resources management. Such digitisation should be launched in all virtual communities and educational systems; this is to enhance its effectiveness. Also, governments and NGOs should initiate projects to develop digitisation of indigenous knowledge in order to promote cultures and enhance indigenous capacity for environmental sustainability and effective management of natural resources in Africa.

It must have been ideas like Akinwale’s that prompted the federal government, earlier this year, to announce a collaboration with Diasfund Africa Limited (DAL) to establish the first digital museum in Africa. The African Heritage Digital Museum, as it was named, would be inaugurated on the International Museum Day (around May 18) and would feature about 1,000 high resolution photographs of the oldest man-made artefacts in Nigeria.

While signing the memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Abuja, the Director-General (DG) of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, said that the essence of embarking on the project was to highlight the importance of Nigeria’s cultural objects to Nigerians and the global community, adding that there was a need for foreigners to appreciate the aesthetic value of the objects.

“Given the number of people engaged in the use of internet, we are hopeful that a lot of money will be generated though the revenue will be shared between the commission and Diasfund,” he said. “We, however, do not have a fixed amount that we will realise from the project.”

However, the Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria (ARAN) quickly put out a statement that the proposed digital museum was not a wise choice for the country, as it would discourage people to physically visit the museums across the country. Mr. George Agbo, the President of the association, made this known in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) recently.
Agbo said that the association was not in the know about the proposed digital museum to be inaugurated by the NCMM and DAL. “We were not consulted, otherwise we would have advised against it,” he said. “We should be careful because if our museums are digitised, we are going to discourage tourists from visiting them. That would make our museums redundant; people would not want to take their children there to see our past, they would just open their phones and computers to view them. If you see a picture of an ocean, would there be any need for you to go into the ocean?”

He said that museums could be likened to sacred places where people go to cherish their past and the history of their existence and emphasised that this was one of the reasons why people were not allowed to take pictures in museums.

“But if it goes online like I was made to understand, what then happens to the physical museums and also the money that would come in; is it to the company or NCMM. I want to suggest that we should not put pictures of all our objects from the museum into the website because it is a treasure house.

“And you cannot expose your treasure house to the world, but rather invite the world to come and see them. That is why taking pictures in museums in China and many European countries are not allowed,” Agbo reiterated. But major mainstream art critics have failed to understand ARAN’s position, noting that the museums themselves have little substance left to protect.
“The argument has no basis, and it reflects how backward the intelligence that runs most of our public institutions is,” former editor of the Guardian Newspaper and prominent art critic, Jahman Anikulapo, told THISDAY. “Around the world, photographing of such works are allowed, and even though restrictions are placed in some other places, their reasons for that are not because they think people will not come visiting the museum.

“The first basic question to ask is: are the works in the museums even well displayed in the first place? Please visit the Lagos Museum and see the shame of our cultural presentation. You will be lucky to come out alive with your cultural pride and self-confidence as a civilised person still intact. The main museum building, built to serve as a modern display facility has been corruptibly appropriated by a big, seemingly untouchable moneybag in Lagos, and is what is today called City Mall. And we have been helpless on how to rescue the facility.
“The argument by ARAN is what can be easily described as bunkum. And to debunk it, please ask them how many visitors do they receive in a week, month, or year to the museum to see the works in their current depressive state – buried as they are in dust, cobwebs and neglect.”
A lover of the arts and frequenter of museums across the country, Chibuihe Obi, also could not understand the logic behind ARAN’s argument.

“I strongly support the move to digitise museums,” he said. “Most of the artefacts in our museums have suffered great damage as a result of the poor conditions of museums in Nigeria. Some of the artefacts have either been looted or vandalised. During a recent visit to the National War Museum in Umuahia, the tour guide kept reminding us that what was left are the remains of a very large collection.

The rest had been pilfered one after the other. Digitisation of the museum will go a long way in preserving these artefacts for posterity, which, I believe, is the core goals of museums.”
Another prominent art critic who spoke to THISDAY, Ikhide Ikheloa, was even more flummoxed with ARAN’s position. “They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “Are our “museums” anything worth digitising? Who visits them anyway? I saw pictures from the Nigerian Civil War Museum and I wept.”

The sorry state of Nigerian museums was brilliantly painted by Teju Cole in his autobiographical novel, Everyday is for the Thief, which was published by Cassave Republic.
Reminiscing about a visit to the Lagos Museum, Cole narrated: “The galleries, cramped, are spatially unlike what I remember or had imagined, and the artefacts are caked in dust and under dirty plastic screens. The whole place has a tired, improvised air about it, like a secondary school assignment finished years ago and never touched since. The deepest disappointment, though, is not in its presentation. It is in content.

I honestly expected to find the glory of Nigerian archaeology and art history displaced here. I had hoped to see the best of the Ife bronzes, the fine Benin brass plaques and figures, Nok terracottas, the roped vessels of Igbo Ukwu, the art for which Nigeria is justly extolled in academies the world over . . . it is not to be . . . it is clear that no one cares.”

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