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Lessons From National Museum, Esie



Museum security is of most paramount importance for the protection of museum properties, which include the museum buildings, premises, collections, the staff, visitors and their valuables. MAKINDE OLUWAROTIMI writes, using Esie Museum, the first in Nigeria, as a case study.

According to Groves and Thomas (2005), Theft is not the only issue museums face in terms of security: vandalism; protest; fire; flooding; and terrorism threats are all significant issues in the museum context. The security challenges for museums are complex, and not only do they need to preserve and protect cultural material in their collections, but also make it accessible and available to a range of audiences, each with differing needs. That is why it is often said that the security of museum is everybody’s business from the Director-General to the cleaners.
National Museum, Esie, fondly called House of Images, was established in 1945 by the Colonial Government to house the soap stone sculptures that were brought to lime light in 1933 by H G Ranshaw, a CMS School Inspector for Oro Area. The sculptures were said to have been known to the local community as far back as 1775 when Esie people arrived at their present location, having migrated from Old Oyo.
The Museum is located on the outskirt of the town, at the spot where the sculptures were said to have been accidentally discovered by Baragbon, a famous hunter and the leader of the migrants. The site is about 1.4km Southwest of Esie town, which is located about 50km southeast of Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. It houses well over 1000 soap stone sculptures. These sculptures are generally described as carvings of men and women presided over by a king (Oba Ere) and they represent the largest collection of stone carvings in Sub-Saharan Africa. The stone objects represent various social status and activities.
Under the supervision of JD Clarke, a shelter was built in 1937 to protect the images but it eventually collapsed in 1944 as a result of poor maintenance. In 1945, an octagonal building of concrete and local lateritic stone with roof of corrugated iron, was erected on the site with single entrance covered by a heavy wooden door fastened with a huge padlock, thus becoming the first Museum in Nigeria. The museum was established in-situ, which explains why it is located outside the town.
Towards the end of 1965, an architect, Mr Lyczkowski, designed a new Museum complex for Esie, and mid 1966, the first three structures; the gallery, the store and the altar were completed while the fourth structure was completed over the next three years.

In the year 2012, an office building and a modern gallery were built where a permanent exhibition titled: Indigenous Artworks as Indicators of Cultural Harmony were commissioned to complement the existing ones. The new exhibition contains exquisite artworks from all over the country. The gallery also hosts a couple of other temporary exhibitions: “Pre and Royal Activities of Egunjobi II” and “Peace Begins with me”.
Esie museum, has had its own fair share of security breach and few cases of antiquity theft. Records have it that a German Explorer, Leo Frobenius, visited Nigeria in 1910-1911. He was said to have visited Offa, a nearby town and collected some Esie stone figures. It was not clear whether Fobenius actually visited the site of the images but Agbo-Ooye (2002) records that he, Frobenius, actually visited Esie and collected three heads of stone images. According to him, these objects are now donning the Galleries of Museum of Primitive Art, New York in the USA.
It is equally on record that the museum has witnessed three other cases of theft where objects have been carted away.
In 1988, a stone object was stolen but was later found by the fence of the museum later in that same year. It was reported that when the object was found, Esie people reaffirmed their belief that the stone figures, even if taken would return. Also in 1993, some objects were carted away. The last one was in 1995 when some seemingly “harmless” people visited the museum after the closing hour, only the duty officer and three museum security officers were on duty. The visitors could not have access to the gallery, but they stayed a while in the children playing ground. When they were about leaving, they pretended as if their vehicle failed to start so they pleaded with the staff on duty to help them push the vehicle to jump-start it. After several attempts, the vehicle would not start (obviously they had disconnected something) and the officers were tired and jaded. It was then they concluded that one officer, who had a motorbike, should take one of them to the town in order to bring an auto mechanic. Before those who went to town could return, they gave a can of malt each to the tired, unsuspecting officers who drank and immediately slept off. They technically disarmed the officers on duty, took the key and made away with some stone objects and an Epa Mask.
Esie town, has been a centre of attraction since the discovery of the stone images. People from all walks of life throng the ancient town to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring objects. The annual festival of the images also attracts huge crowd from outside and within the immediate environment. No doubt, such interaction could pose a security threat to the objects. As a result, measures must be put in place to protect the objects. Below are some of the measures put in place to prevent theft of the stone objects.

Taboo: The cult, festival and celebration built around the images made it a sacrilege for an unauthorised person to touch the images or even commune with them. Therefore, the objects were seldom handled. Besides, the people believed that even if any of the objects is stolen, it (the stolen object) would return to Esie on its own within a stipulated time. Even though this is just a mere legend, Agbo-Ooye (2002) records that in some years back, someone stole one of the objects but the people of Esie were not perturbed because of the widely believed notion that the objects could not be removed. According to him, the stolen object “returned” one morning as it was found by the fence of the museum. This event further strengthens the belief that the objects were gods and could not be stolen.
Colonial Officers Intervention: The objects were brought to limelight in 1933 by Mr H G Ramshaw, a Church Mission Society (CMS) School Inspector for Oro Area. When he came in contact with the objects in the grove where they were left, they had been overgrown with weeds, so he made frantic efforts to notify the colonial administrators in that area of the presence of the images. As a result of his effort, in 1937, Mr JD Clarke, a colonial superintendent of Education, Mr S Milburn, a colonial superintendent of education in Abeokuta and some of their colleagues, became involved and made sure, through different reports to the Colonial Government that a shelter was built to protect the images. At first, it was difficult to achieve because the Esie people protested and refused such shelter to be built. To them, such shelter would render the figures impotent. After a protracted tussle, a shelter was finally built to protect the figures in 1937. This shelter eventually collapsed in 1944 because the people were unwilling to maintain it. In 1945, the Colonial Government commissioned an octagonal building of concrete and local lateritic stone with roof of corrugated iron to be erected on the site. This was done with a single entrance covered by a heavy wooden door fastened with a huge padlock, thus becoming the first Museum in Nigeria.
As time went by, the octagonal gallery became weak and was collapsing when Mr Philips Steven, who was a member of the American Volunteer Peace Corp (AVPC), teaching English Language in Ibadan in 1963, was given the responsibility of constructing another building. The then director of Antiquities, Kenneth C Murray, directed him to come to Esie to catalogue, repair as many images as possible and dismantle the old house of images, design and construct a new museum building. At the end of April 1966, the cataloguing was completed and new buildings were put in place where the objects were carefully arranged.




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