Nigeria’s New Museum Of Yoruba Culture Is Not Like Other Museums

Opposite the Nigerian National Museum in central Lagos, a swimming pool and a memorial hall once stood as an integral part of the city, a popular congregation point that evoked a sense of pride.

This year, decades after the compound fell into disrepair, a new pool is opening to the public alongside a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to Yoruba culture.

The John Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History, which describes itself as “a fitting symbol of the multiplicity of identities in the metropolis”, is in the Onikan area, the cultural heart of Lagos island. Unlike the National Museum, built in the late 1950s on a western model by the English archaeologist Kenneth Murray, the centre is “unapologetically Yoruba”, according to Seun Oduwole, the site’s lead architect.

“If you go to a western museum, the African section is often in the basement, it’s dark. But this museum pops with colour and sound to highlight the vibrancy and the dynamism of the Yoruba culture,” Oduwole says. Yoruba words are bigger than English counterparts on signs and displays.

Will Rea, the Nigerian-born curator and academic who has helped steer the project, adds: “It is very different to a European museum, you walk in a soundscape and it’s noisy, it’s performative, you have to move your body the whole time.”

Carvings by Bisi Fakeye showcase Yoruba craftsmanship at the John Randle Centre

The external walls of the Yoruba centre, which has 1,000 sq m of exhibition space, are concrete and finished in earth-coloured pigments reminiscent of the mud features in old Yoruba settlements. The gold lattice is a reference to the craftsmanship of Yoruba people.

Inside, visitors are greeted by an audio-visual display that animates Yoruba myths of the origin of the world, using the form of a calabash, a gourd that has significance in Yoruba culture and beliefs. A separate room exhibits various deities and manifestations of saints, including Shango, the god of thunder, and Oshun, the goddess of femininity and fertility. There is a specific space for storytelling, to reflect the Yoruba oral tradition, as well as sections on customs and practices.

Former Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari unveiled the centre, commissioned by the Lagos state government, in January 2023, but it will open its doors to the public this autumn.

The original swimming pool on the site was built by John Randle, a Sierra Leone-born doctor from a returnee slave family. He saw how young Lagosians were drowning in the surrounding lagoon and decided to build a swimming pool when the colonial rulers refused to do so.

The public swimming pool area in the John Randle Centre

The pool that Randle built in the 1920s in what was then known as the George V Park became a huge attraction – Lagosians were excluded from the nearby members-only club run by the British. A memorial hall was added to the site in the 1950s, but as Lagos expanded in the subsequent decades, the buildings fell into disrepair and closed down in the late 1970s.

Besides the museum, the centre also has three restaurant spaces serving contemporary Yoruba cuisine, a library, a temporary exhibition gallery, seminar rooms and a gift shop.

Oduwole, who works for the Lagos-based firm SI.SA, says that many Lagosians of his parents’ generation learned to swim in the original Randle pool and went to the theatre in the memorial hall.

“One of the things that we wanted to do here was to interrogate museology as a construct and ask the question about why the western model doesn’t work within the African context, and how we can create a space that isn’t a museum in the traditional sense, but is more like a theatre of living memory,” he says.

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Yoruba objects on display in the John Randle Centre, featuring various deities and facets of Yoruba culture and history, including the creation myth

Talks are under way to receive 12 items on long-term loans from the British Museum, including the Lander stool, one of the first Yoruba pieces taken from Nigeria by the British, which has been the subject of repatriation calls. Among items donated to the museum is a costume worn by the notable Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, regarded as the King of Afrobeat.

Rea, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, says: “Yoruba culture is without doubt one of the great artistic, musical and oral literature cultures of the world. It is stunning in its creativity and art history.

“Even today, we find that Yoruba culture is influencing the world in all sorts of ways, with Fela Kuti taking it out of oriki singing tradition into a fusion of west coast American jazz. The notion of – for example – salsa, that is in origin a Yoruba dance movement that was taken up in Brazil. You now find Yoruba cuisine in London and New York. There is real sense that Yoruba culture needs more visibility.”

A team of academics and experts have contributed to the centre’s design and purpose, including the Nigerian-American scholar Rowland Abiodun, whose book, Yoruba Art and Language, is a key resource in the academic world.

The interactive digital storytelling feature, Gateway to the Future, in the John Randle Centre

Rea says that Lagos has deep connections to Yoruba heritage. “The whole Onikan area had become rather lost in the expansion of the city of Lagos, so the new centre is very much aimed at developing this area as a cultural quarter,” he says.

Yoruba people speak a similar language and have had a shared cultural identity and a shared cosmology that goes back in time, he says.

Interest in Yoruba heritage has peaked among young Nigerians over the past 10 years and “that’s what the Randle Centre absolutely plays into”, according to Rea.

“The key thing about the centre is a refusal to talk about the idea of the traditional. When you talk about traditional African art, it’s a very Eurocentric view of African art, it’s ahistorical notion. Rather, what we’re doing is looking at the traditions of Yoruba culture.”

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