Museums and their Relevance in Borno State, Nigeria

Zainab Musa Shallangwa  //  BRUSHSTROKES
University of Maiduguri

Zainab Musa Shallangwa is lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. She holds a B.A Degree in Creative Arts (Art History and Museology) from the University of Maiduguri and a Masters Degree in Museums and Heritage Studies from the University of Ghana, Legon. Presently, Zainab is a PhD Student of a Binational Doctoral Degree at the University of Maiduguri (Nigeria) and the University of Hildesheim (Germany) under the SDG-Graduate School ‘Performing Sustainability. Cultures and Development in West Africa’.



Museums are public cultural and educational institutions that occupy an important place in national development. They preserve the tangible and intangible culture of the communities in which they are located, and the public they serve derives benefits and pleasure from their displays. In Borno State, Nigeria, however, there is a question of the relevance of museums, particularly in the present day, given the extremely slow pace at which the institution grows. Museums are generally perceived as establishments where historical artifacts are kept and displayed. While this is not wrong, the museums’ role by far supersedes keeping and displaying artifacts. For this reason, museums in developed countries do not confine themselves to traditional roles of acquiring, documenting, conserving and displaying cultural artifacts. They are now actively involved in addressing contemporary issues within the communities they serve. For example, the “I Am … Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” exhibition of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art addresses contemporary gender issues by showcasing selected artworks of diverse media by women, revealing a contemporary feminism that recognizes the contributions of women to the most pressing issues of their times. The featured artists use their art to address issues of community, faith, the environment, politics, colonial encounters, racism, identity, and more (Smithsonian Museum of African Art 2019). The Museum Association’s “Museums 2020” initiative for the future development of the sector provides further clarification on how museums are expected to benefit society, ranging from “improving people’s lives, building communities, strengthening society and protecting the environment” (Museums Association 2012: 3).

The museum as an institution is an important constituent of modern society and if well harnessed, can go a long way in shaping societal progress. Cultural education, the promotion of mutual understanding among ethnic groups in Nigeria, the reactivation of rural handicrafts, and economic growth are some of the ways that museums can contribute to nation-building, as suggested by Afigbo and Okita (1985). However, in Nigeria, as in most African countries, communities where museums are located are yet to fully enjoy the benefits of museums. Makuvaza (2002) argues that in Africa, museums as national institutions were not developed to serve local Africans, but rather to satisfy the curiosities of the elite citizenry. He adds that today, these museums are still inaccessible and not enjoyed by the majority, as they are located in urban areas, and their collections and displays still mirror western concepts.

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines relevance as “the fact of being valuable and useful to people in their lives and work.” In the context of the museum, relevance is linked to the usefulness of the museum in the lives of people, which can be determined first by the level at which the society patronizes the museum. It is only through patronage that it can be revealed whether the experience adds value or not. The main question in this essay is: are the museum staff fulfilling their roles in order to achieve relevance in Borno society? These roles are clearly defined in the definition of a museum by the International Council of Museums. These roles, considered the traditional roles of museums, are the acquisition, documentation, conservation, and exhibition of artifacts in the interest of the communities they serve.

Borno State, located in Northeast Nigeria, is the worst affected state by the Boko Haram campaign of terror, which resulted in the displacement of over 2 million people. The situation rendered many local government areas (LGAs) in Borno State uninhabitable; hence, the inhabitants fled their places of abode to take refuge in neighboring states and neighboring countries – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – with the majority being in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. Most of the people that were forced to escape their villages are placed in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The museum as a public, cultural, and educational institution has a lot to offer in such times, but unfortunately, this cannot not be achieved as a result of some challenges plaguing the institution, which are discussed in the ensuing sections of this paper.

The findings of this paper obtained through interviews with Borno State museum and the National Museum staff members and National and Borno State Museums visitors revealed that the museums in Borno State are not yet fulfilling their expected roles within the Borno community; hence, their relevance is at stake. The findings point to the fact that the museums in Borno are struggling to fulfill their traditional roles; therefore, keeping up with current museological practices is yet to be achieved.

The museum staff, curators, directors, conservators, educators, and administrators, who all explained that they would prefer not to be identified within this paper, mentioned a number of challenges impeding them from reaching their full potential.

The Emergence of Museums in Nigeria

According to Okonkwo Ivan Emeka (2016), the emergence of museums in Nigeria dates back to pre-Arab and -European times. During these periods, Okonkwo notes that various materials of cultural, religious, and political significance were fashioned and preserved in temples, traditional shrines or in the palaces of kings and chiefs. In pre-colonial museums, persons responsible for preserving and organizing these materials were household heads, priests of shrines, and kings’ and chiefs’ officers who acted as curators.

However, according to Ekpo Eyo (1994), the birth of conventional museums in Nigeria, like in most African countries, can be traced to the beginning of colonization of African countries by Europe in the late nineteenth century, an era that coincided with the development of connoisseurship and scholarship in museum development in Europe. Eyo notes that the early museum left the typical African in a dilemma, as both Islam and Christianity were widespread in most parts of Africa before the formal declaration of colonization in West Africa. The cultural objects, which needed to be preserved, admired, and studied within the museums introduced by the colonial governments, were thus anti-Islam, anti-Christian, and even anti-colonial. This left the typical African confused, as the museum as an institution became a contradiction, and Africans, in an effort to embrace modern western education and the prestige it conferred, became oblivious and often hostile to the very objects which established them as human beings (Eyo 1994). However, independence brought a new light to African museums. African nationalists looked to museums as a mirror to their new status: a cultural institution that was required to buttress political independence. Latham & Simmons (2014) confirm Eyo’s claim that “the national systems of museums in Nigeria has played an important role in defining the culture of post revolution Nigeria (P.141)” Latham and Simmons are probably alluding to post-independence Nigeria. The key point here, however, is that the museum institution is an important component of the socio-political landscape. Almost all of the thirty-six states in Nigeria have a national museum alongside a state-owned museum. National museums are directly financed by the federal government of Nigeria, while state museums are financed by the state government. In addition, the national museum displays artifacts from the entire country, while the state museums focus on artifacts from the state in which they are located.

There are currently two museums in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital: The National Museum, which is directly under the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, and the Borno State Museum, which is under the Borno State Ministry of Information and Culture. Both museums hold in trust material evidence of the Borno people and were vibrant places until about the late nineties, when the institution started experiencing a decline. This was exacerbated by the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency. The Borno State National Museum is located in the Custom area in Maiduguri, where the insurgents had established great control until they were sacked in 2013/14. As a result of the control Boko Haram had around the area, the National Museum was out of operations for quite some time and currently operates skeletally for security reasons. The State Museum, on the other hand, is located in the city center and has remained operational; however, the institution has witnessed a setback in its activities for some years because of the security situation and neglect the institution has suffered on the part of the government, which – according to some museum staff – stemmed from the non-profit nature of the institution. The government may be ignorant of the fact that the museum, while maintaining its non-profit status, has the ability to generate revenue indirectly, for instance through tourism. A lot of revenue can be generated indirectly by the museum via transport, hospitality, and accommodation.


Low patronage

The museums suffer from low patronage. The staff members mentioned that they rarely have visitors now, unlike fifteen to twenty years ago. Narrating their experiences, some staff of the Borno State Museum and the National museum in Maiduguri mentioned:

In the past the museum was a vibrant place, we had visitors from all walks of life- the University, Colleges of Education within Borno State, secondary school students even expatriates because of how well organized and attractive our collections were but we rarely have visitors these days. People hardly remember we exist. We ran shifts on weekends and people had to queue to buy tickets. Today, we can spend a whole week without anyone passing by. (National Museum Maiduguri staff member, April 2019)

The museum is a shadow of itself today. If anyone had told me this place would be disserted this way some years back, I would not have believed it. Occasionally people visit but the truth is the number of visitors has dropped drastically. The issue of underfunding has affected our outlook seriously. (Borno State Museum staff member, April 2019)

Poor Structure and infrastructure

The museums’ buildings are in bad shape and require renovation. This has an effect on the collections. The museums lack adequate equipment to control the temperature. Holes in the walls allow dust to settle on the objects, threatening their longevity. Talking about poor structure and infrastructure, a staff member said:

We lack the adequate equipment to preserve our collections that is why we are losing them. The place is poorly maintained too. This makes it impossible for us to fulfill our mandate of preserving these artifacts for posterity. (April 2019)

Plate 1. National Museum Building, Maiduguri. (Source: Author, 2019.)
Plate 2. Traditional Borno male garment, National Museum Maiduguri exhibit. (Source: Author, 2019.)

Unqualified Staff

Most of the museum staff lack knowledge of standard museological practices and are therefore not concerned about this malfunction.

Most of the staff here have no background in museology that is why our collections are in this state. They do not feel passionate about the state of these artifacts. (Borno State Museum staff member, April 2019)

Plate 3. Traditional Raffia products, Borno State Museum Exhibit. (Source: Author, 2019.)
Plate 4. Rabeh’s statue, Borno State Museum Courtyard. (Source: Author, 2019.)
Plate 5. Past traditional leaders of Borno, State Museum Exhibit. (Source: Author, 2019.)
Plate 6. Traditional war implements, Borno State Museum Exhibit. (Source: Author.)

Low Funding

Museum staff members complained that lack of government funding is a major challenge and impedes their efficiency. The decline in the number of visitors has greatly impacted their work as well. They are expected to make use of these funds to maintain their collections, structure, and infrastructure since the institution is non-profit, but this has become almost impossible.

Because of the low patronage, we cannot fund ourselves. We need more financial support from the government and other organizations. The annual funding hardly gets to us. Recently, we collaborated with North East Regional Initiative (NERI) on a project. We went to several IDP camps enlightening the people about our cultural values and it was a huge success. Such collaborations and support will go a long way in helping us fulfill our mandate. (Borno State Museum staff member, April 2019)

I am a trained museologist and I am familiar with standard museological practices but the truth is there is almost nothing we can do without adequate funding. Once the funding is there, we are able and willing to work. (National Museum staff member, Maiduguri, April 2019)

A museum visitor narrating her experience after a guided tour of the Borno State Museum explained:

I enjoyed the tour, it was very educative. I learnt a lot about the past today. (April 2019)

Another female visitor to the museum said:

My brother was here last week and he encouraged me to visit. I like the cultural artifacts on display. (April 2019)

The Borno society has a lot to benefit from the museums in the state, especially in the era of insurgency and displacement. For instance, the Borno State Museum has a wide range of cultural artifacts from displaced communities within the state; the museum space could help these people stay in touch with their cultures, which could have therapeutic effects, as the IDPs are traumatized. Further, their displacement has lingered for about five years. This implies that a number of children have been born who have never been to their place of origin; the museum becomes overly relevant in telling the stories about their home to these young children. The museums are reference points for a wide range of issues; hence, efforts must be made in order to ensure the relevance and sustainability of these institutions in Borno State and the country at large.


It is important for the Borno state museums to become fully operational, as their benefits for society cannot be overstated. It is a reference point for a wide range of cultural, social, historical, and economical issues, among others. To achieve this, I recommend the following to the Borno State government:

  • Upgrade the facility by renovating the building and installing necessary equipment to prevent further deterioration of the objects.
  • Encourage museum staff to come up with new programs to improve the public patronage of the museum.
  • Ensure the training of museum staff on standard museological practices by funding trainings and workshops. This can also be possible through collaborations and partnerships with universities and other educational institutions like the Institute for Archaeology and Museum Studies, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria.
  • Encourage educational institutions at all levels to partner with the museum to benefit from the information and leisure the museum offers.

The museum staff also have to play a part in ensuring the sustainability and relevance of the museum institution. They need to do the following:

  • Staff members should key into strategies of more established museums and museum groups around the world and adapt their strategies for sustainability. For example, the UK Museum Association’s agenda, “Museums 2020,” is a strategy that aims to make museums more useful as social institutions and more relevant in the context of the twenty-first century. The museums in Borno can learn from such strategies and adapt the relevant parts that fit the Borno society. This will go a long way in keeping the institution relevant.
  • Since a number of museum staff members have a background in museology, they should invest in drafting robust programs that will attract support and funding. This will help the museum regain its lost glory.
  • Staff members also need to partner with other museums across the globe. This will bring a great deal of improvement in services, thereby making the institution more relevant.

There is also a need to incorporate Afrocentric ideals into the philosophy, operations, and modus operandi of museums across the African continent. For instance, the idea of who exactly constitutes an expert in the service of a museum needs to be reappraised from an Africanist orientation. Local populations should be brought in by museums in Africa, rather than these museums being overly reliant on university scholars and supposedly expert curators. Locals will therefore have a sense of ownership and relate more with the museum. Anah Cletus Ikecukwu (2014) argues that as a colonial construct, Nigerian museums have been confined to the role of tourist attraction. He further argues that the cultural artifacts on display in Nigerian museums symbolize history, belief systems, achievements, values, ideas about human dignity, and so on. He suggests a radical overhaul and reorientation of the museum itself for the institution to reach its full potential.


Conventional museums have essentially remained unprogressive, poorly patronized, and seriously underfunded in Nigeria. The institution is barely recognized even by the government. The fact that the institution generates little or no income for the government is probably responsible for the neglect on the part of the government. The Eurocentric ideals upon which the museum institution was established in Africa, as opined by Makuvaza (2002), and the unprogressive nature of museums in the country are probable factors as well. All hope is not lost though, as this can be corrected by injecting some of the recommendations presented in this article. Museums in Borno have the potential of achieving success that would bring needed adjustments towards the realization of relevance and sustainability of the institution. A rise in the number of visitors and the level of community participation/involvement in museum programs and activities are strong indictors of these successes.


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