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History Of Benin Museum

Written by John Oshoke Anabui (Last Update June 11, 2023)

What is today known as Benin museum was an integral part of Oba Palace until 1897 when Britain took over the place for the administration of the kingdom-it comprised an open Mall (Ugha Ozolua) and a traditional prison yard (during the reign of Oba Ewuare – 15th century A.D.).

Additionally, it comprised the site where those that committed grievous offences were executed. This was what made British visitors to describe Benin as a barbaric place. According to Igbafe (Benin under British Administration: The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom. 1897 – 1938. Longman Group, London, 1979), Richard Burton, the Consul at Fernando po who visited Benin during the reign of Oba Adolo described Benin as a place of “gratuitous barbarity” which stinks of death with its crucifixions, human skulls strewn about like pebbles because of a generous resort to human sacrifices. This spot is the ancient Road Junction at the present museum ground, now an archaeological site.

Natonal Museum Ring Road Benin City

During the 1897 British – Benin war, the British soldiers built a fort at the present museum. In 1899, permanent houses were built-the present Education and Documentation buildings, and the administrative building which was destroyed in 2009 during the Edo State administration of Comrade Adams Oshiomole. The two small buildings (one-room apartment each) located at the left hand side (from the entrance gate) served as a prison and a treasury, respectively.

Until 1918, the world museum was not officially known in Benin. In that year, the Benin provincial Exhibition was held. The objects exhibited were what Jacob Uwadia Egharevba had collected for two years. Prince Godfrey who became Oba Akanzua II (1933 – 1979 AD), one of the closest friends of Egharevba, used his position to secure two rooms of 10ft square each in the palace for the storage of the artefacts which Egharevba collected when the exhibition of 1918 was held.

In 1943, K.C. Murray, who was the then Director of Nigerian Antiquities Department visited Benin to explore the chances of starting a federal museum Centre. In 1945, the Director of British Museum came with K.C. Murray to the Oba of Benin who in turn handed them over to Egharevba with respect to the museum Centre. The dream of Oba Akenzua and Egharevba came true with the establishment of the National Museum, Benin museum in 1946. The collection of Oba Akenzua and Ekharevba, in addition to some other ones which were donated by the palace and other chiefs in Benin Kingdom were transferred to the present Museum ground for the purpose of permanent exhibition. This exhibition was done in a building that was located at the present car park at the Museum ground, all within the Palace area.

With the acquisitions of more antiquities, it became imperative that a befitting gallery be built. Hence, during the era of Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, the first military governor of the then Mid West state, the present gallery was built in support of the Federal government efforts in the preservation of Benin history – a commendable assistance! It was commissioned in 1973.


Before the Europeans started documenting Benin history, Benin had already become a well planned city, comparable to European cities then, as acknowledged by the Portuguese that had the first contact with Benin in the 15th century AD. There were many roads linking Benin with her neighbours, the others were well-planned street roads. But two of these roads passed directly through the palace. These were the Benin-Owo/Benin Sapele Road and Benin-Auchi (Akpakpava Road through Airport Road), and Benin Siloko Road (through to the present Sakponba Road). At the junction of these roads was the location of the Oba Palace, which later included the Colonial office/Residency (National Museum, Benin). These roads, linking Benin with the neighbouring towns, were later taken over by the Niger Coast Protectorate, and later by the federal government of Nigeria (in 1914) which manages the roads till the present time.

The Museum was fenced off during the Midwest state government of Brigadier Osaigbovbo Ogbemudia for traffic control, the area then became known as Ring road or King square (now Oba Ovonranwen Square). Consequently, it now appears that from inception these roads had their separate starting points from this area. However, the links of these roads are now inside the Museum ground as relics of the past.


National Museum, Benin is an archaeological site; it is located in the heart of the ancient Benin Kingdom. It is also the place where those that committed gracious offences were executed in the past. The Oba Palace has existed there for centuries, thereby proving to be a potential site for the search of datable archaeological materials for the study of prehistoric Benin history.

Generally, Museum uses the information on the objects in the museum or searches out for others in the field. Sometimes it may carry out some archaeological excavations of potential cultural objects in ancient sites. By archaeological excavation it means the careful and patience digging up of cultural properties underground for the purpose of scientific study.

However, Museum only carries out such excavations when it is very necessary. Consequently, it protects all ancient places where such information could be found as archaeological sites. It equally guides against illegal archaeological excavations, such as those done by looters.

Much authentic information about Benin exists in its arts works and European travel documents, especially from the 15th century AD. Information about Benin prehistoric period is got from oral history. The origin, dates of events, relationships, in terms of economics, social, religion, etc with peoples may be conflicting, substantial part of its prehistoric period may not even have been known. To fill this gap in information, there is need for archaeological excavation of some potential ancient sites for cultural objects with a view to scientific study of Benin history.


Until 1897, the Great Benin was an independent nation, but after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885 that partitioned Africa amongst the then European powers, Britain made several efforts to colonize Benin. This started with the signing of peace treaty with Benin, which Benin later rejected when it realized that the treaty would not favour her. Later the Benin soldiers killed many people in a convoy of Britain who, as it is claimed, was coming to Benin to make her respect the treaty. Britain retaliated by carrying out what it termed: “Benin Punitive Expenditure”.

During the war, Monuments and Palaces of many high-ranking Chiefs were looted. Homes, religious buildings and places were deliberately destroyed. After the shedding of much blood and tears, Benin succumbed to the greater military power of Britain. Ologbosere (Commander-in Chief of the Benin army), was killed by hanging in a tree which was located behind the present colonial buildings at the Museum.

The Great Benin Monarch, Oba Ovonramwen surrendered to the Britain army at a spot in the present Museum. The Benin people planted an Ikhimwin (Newbouldia Laevis at the spot (opposite the present gallery) in memory of that historic event. The tree is still marking the event of 1897 in historical continuity. In the Benin mythology, Ikhimwin marks landmark phenomena (Egbon). Additionally, the present museum was made the Centre of British administration of Benin after the war.

The second Ikhimwin (Newbouldia Laevis), along the ancient Benin Sapele Road (within the Museum) was planted upon Britain request for an agreement between her and the Benin nation that the later has given her (the former) permission to use the part of the palace for the administration of the territory; Britain sought to know the Benin traditional way of acquiring right to settlement in a place. In Benin mythology, Ikhimwin also serves as a symbol of right to possession.

Ovonranwen died in exile, in Calabar in 1914, the same year in which Southern and Northern Nigeria were amalgamated. His death symbolically marked the end of fierce arm resistance against colonialism and the smooth take off of colonial rule in Nigeria with the birth of Nigeria in that year; thereafter, “peace prevailed”. However, according to Jesse Jackson, an American civil right leader, “Peace does not equal quietness or the absence of noise. Often, the oppressed are quiet, intimidated; their pains are suppressed by their predicament but does not suppress their aspiration.

Their thirst for justice and openness must be quenched”.  This was the case in Africa with the birth of modern national, regional, and pan African nationalist non-militant movements that blossom, especially in the 1920s – 1950s with the formation of many political parties and pressure groups until their thirst for justice was eventually quenched with the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960 and to other African nations at different times in the same century.

Consequent upon the foregoing, the preservation of Benin Museum means the preservation of Benin and the entire Nigeria colonial history and symbol of Nationalism in Nigeria (not just a Benin affair); Benin museum remains the major unfading memory of that history. The present colonial buildings, the Khimwen tree, etc are preserved for what they represent.


Another monument in the Benin museum is the Federal government of Nigeria cadastral survey point Beacon. The first order cadastral survey point where every other controls are tied  in Edo state is located within the Benin museum (behind the documentations unit building).


The Benin Museum is much concerned with the preservation of the Edo people’s rich cultural heritage as contained in the next part of this brochure.


Benin Museum provides educational services to the public using Benin cultural objects and monuments. Benin museum organizes school exhibitions, temporal exhibitions of cultural objects and other public enlightenments campaigns about Benin cultural history; it helps in the overall presentation of the cultural heritage to the people. Additionally, Benin museum joins the rest of the world in observing international museum day and international monument day, where people of all background are brought together to celebrate culture. All this activities promotes tourism directly or indirectly.


There are some buildings and heritage sites of historical, artistic, religious architectural, scientific or aesthetic significance, such as ancient residential or cultural buildings and sites, etc. Some of these monuments have been declared national properties. The declared national monuments in Edo State includes Chief Ogiamen House, Chief Aikorogie House, and the Benin City walls and Moats. Such places are tourists sites and they remind us of the past. The museum staff and the original owners protect and conserve them professionally to retain, as much as possible, their originality for the appreciation of the present and future generations.

Additionally, museum professionals study all aspects of the history and other information about such monuments and sites. Those that are declared National Monuments are managed by NCMM in partnership with the original owners. Do you know why the original owners are involved in the management of these monuments? There is no way you can separate a people from its history. By declaring them National Monuments by the federal government, it means that they are not just the pride of the original owners alone, but our common pride, since they help to correct the once held belief that Africa has no history. Therefore, they must be managed. Those that are declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO are heritage of humanity in general.

How do you see those national monuments and heritage sites in your community, state or country-Government’s heritage or your heritage? Now, let us examine the relevance of each of these national monuments in the Edo State.


The Benin City Wall sand Moats were constructed during the reigns of two of the Benin Most powerful rulers who were renowned for their territorial expansionist exploits.  Oba Oguola who reign in the 13th century AD and Oba Ewuare (1440 – 1473AD). In totality, the walls and moats is a living confirmation of the conclusion made museum Fur Volkerkunde in Vienna (2007). “The Benin military system (c. 1440 – 1897) was a mark of civilization. Its army fought under the constituted authority of a dynasty of kings, whose kingdom was one of the most powerful in pre-colonial Africa. From the mid – fifteenth century the army was the indispensable bastion of the state”. The moats and Walls (30ft deep and 30ft high as a 1961 when it declared a national monument) made the city impregnable.


Chief Ogiame House, located along Sakponba road in Benin, built around 1130AD, is the link between two of the three phases of Benin history; the era of the Ogiso dynasty (found about 900AD) and the pre-colonial dynasty of Obas which extended into the third phase, the colonial era that started shortly after the British evasion of Benin in 1897.

According to oral history there were thirty-one (31) kings under the Ogiso dynasty. The first in this lineage was Igodo. Some of the rest were Ere, Orine, Akhuankhuan, Ekpigho, Oria and Owodo. The last in this dynasty was Owodo. Evian, Ogiamen’s father, came into limelight in Edo land during the reign of the last Ogiso Owodo in the 12th century.

The problem in the kingship arrangement (which resulted in interregnum) led to the decision of the body of chiefs headed by Oliha to decide that the Oduduwa of Uhe should be approached for a king. When the Binis approach Oduduwa of Ohe (according to one account); or Oduduwa of the present Ile-Ife (according to another account) for a king, he sent them Oranmiyan (which, according to one oral history, was the banished Akaladeran, the son of Ogisa Owodo). It is pertinent to say that to install Oriamiyan as king was not as easy as reciting the letters of alphabets as much blood and tears were shed in the process. This battle is still re-enacted symbolically during the installation of each new Oba today (this re-enactment is known as the mock battle).

Before 1130 AD, Ogiso’s palace was located at what is today known as Ogiso market at 2nd East Circular Road in Benin City. It is interesting to note that Ogiamen’s house is the only building that survived the British invasion of Benin in 1897.

From the above it could be seen that Ogiamen’s house is of great historical importance. This fact drew the attention of National Commission for Museums and Monuments: thus, it was declared a National Monument in 1959. (May 26th). A replica of Ogiame house is built in Vienne Austria in recognition of its historical and architectural significance.


Chief Aikorogie house at Obazagbon was built in 1816 AD. The history of the architectural designs of the house is dated to the time of the reign of Oba Eresonyen, Akengbuda and Obanosa during which time a revolution took place in the development of “Igi owa (Great residential houses) of the titled nobles as well as the varieties of palace designs”. Designs reflected the walk of the owners such as ivory, bronze, gold, glass beads; such reflected decorative materials were amply displayed in the art produced at royal courts, beams and doors designs. The designs of the Oba of Benin palace were uniquely done in that way.

The palace was constructed by the same crafts men that built the palace of the Oba of Benin, which was burnt down during the British 1897 invasion. The palace at Obazagbon, known as Chief Aikorogie house, apart from being a reference point of an old house, it is the living history of the Benin Palace architectural designs; hence it was declared in 1961 as a National Monument by the Federal Republic of Nigeria.



Though these have not been declared national monument, they are under the inventory of NCMM as sites that needs protection. Consequently, they are being managed as an inseparable part of Benin earthworks; hence they were jointly presented to UNESCO as a potential world heritage site. NCMM has built and office complex and deployed one staff to each of these sites.

John Oshoke Anabui Natonal Museum Ring Road Benin City Edo State

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