David Adjaye Wants to Redefine What a 21st Century Museum Means to Its Community

David Adjaye at Soho Beach House on December 4, 2015 in Miami Beach, Florida. Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images For Soho House & Co

In September of 2019, the announcement was made that star architect David Adjaye had been recruited for a feasibility study for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, Nigeria, which would conceivably hold artifacts such as the Benin bronzes that had been stolen from the historic kingdom. The efforts to build the museum are in line with a global effort to repatriate artifacts that had been stolen from their country of origin through the violences of colonialism. On Friday, the New York Times published a conversation with Adjaye about his design for the museum, which, upon completion, should hold approximately 300 items loaned from other museums.

Adjaye’s conceived design for the museum is three stories tall, and it deliberately looks like a royal palace that once stood within the Kingdom of Benin. The architect made this choice in order to invigorate the population that would most closely be able to access the completed museum: the modern-day residents of Benin City. In fact, Adjaye elaborated to the Times that his ambition is to spark nothing more or less than “the beginning of the renaissance of African culture.” He wants to do this by creating a museum that is specifically and insistently non-Western.

A rendering of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, Nigeria. Copyright Adjaye Associates

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“When I say it will be different, I mean it’ll be different in its meaning,” Adjaye explained. “It’s different in what it’s trying to do. Yes, it will have vitrines with objects in them. But it won’t just be, ‘Here’s the restitution of these bronzes, and here they are in beautiful cases.’ That would not attract locals—not many, maybe the elite. We’ve spent a lot of time developing a museum as a community center that will be part of the community’s daily rituals and lives.”

Additionally, in order “to show the power of what a museum can be in the 21st century,” Adjaye is also making sure that the planned institution stands as a complete refusal to the damaging ideologies of colonialism, which passed down the lie that cultures such as ancient Benin’s were primitive in some way. “It was profound the first time I saw them,” Adjaye said, referring to the Benin Bronzes. “Looking at these brass plaques that were in the palaces, and these extraordinary brass heads, this really dignified, incredible civilization.”

David Adjaye Wants to Redefine What a 21st Century Museum Means to Its Community