Nigeria Tells Its Own Natural History

A nation is defined by what it preserves.

The Natural History Museum in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. The building was completed in 2011. Since 1974, when the museum began, it was housed on the campus of Obafemi Awolowo University. 


The British colonial government of Nigeria (1914-1960) made a systematic study of the Nigerian environment and the diverse cultures of the country’s human population. The results of the study culminated in the identification and collection of national heritage and historical objects, as well as a catalogue and specimens of Nigeria’s fauna and flora. These objects and reports were managed and controlled by the British colonial officials with total exclusion of Nigerians. Upon independence in 1960, the new Nigerian government took control of the collection and warehoused it. An analysis of archival records, newspapers, related documents, and interviews shows that there was an effort by knowledgeable individuals to reinterpret the collection from a Nigerian perspective. But the idea of a physical building to house Nigeria’s natural and cultural artifacts languished for years because of a lack of political and financial support.

After Nigeria’s civil war (1967-1970), however, there was a shift toward developmental and innovative projects. The establishment of a natural history museum was one such idea. It was first proposed in 1971 by the University of Ife (now, Obafemi Awolowo University, or OAU), located in the ancient city of Ile-Ife in the southwestern region of Nigeria. The university launched an endowment fund in 1973 and in January of 1974 the Natural History Museum commenced operation. It was conceived to be a renowned center in the West African subregion for its collections and displays as well as for its scientific research on natural history.

Gallery of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals native to Nigeria

Not having its own facility, the museum started as an autonomous unit in the zoology department of the university. It was housed temporarily on the top floor in one of the buildings of the Faculty of Agricultural Science. By the museum’s own account, “This noble idea enjoyed every encouragement and support for the first two years.” Unfortunately, the space was inadequate to accommodate the curators, the objects, the researchers, and the visitors. Although plans for a permanent building had an award-winning design by James Cubitt Adenuga Company and land was allotted, the project stalled for lack of funds.
    In 1992, in celebration of the university’s thirtieth anniversary, the university launched another endowment fund for the building—44 million naira (USD 106,000). The fund did not reach its goal and, again, the museum was neglected; however, in academic year 1990/91 the university merged its department of archaeology with the Natural History Museum, thus expanding its scope to include archaeology and cultural anthropology. With a renewed commitment to complete the building in the new millennium, the university made appeals to federal and state ministries, non-governmental agencies, corporations, and individuals. It was finally able to secure a grant of “468,000 pound[s] sterling…released in four yearly instalments” from the A. G. Leventis Foundation. The building was completed in 2011.

Bronze bust from Benin Kingdom era


The history of museums in Nigeria predates the Arab and European eras. In a 1990 study, archaeologists Alex Ikechukwu Okpoko, of the University of Nigeria, and N. K. Momin, of the University of Ibadan, found that, prior to foreign incursions, various cultural materials of ritual, religious, and political importance were fashioned, conserved, and preserved in temples or traditional shrines and in the palaces of kings and chiefs in Nigerian kingdoms and communities. These various kingdoms and communities preserved the cultural materials as monuments and heritage of the people. Some examples include the Royal Palace of Oba of the Benin Kingdom, where artifacts had been preserved for centuries until they were carted away and the palace destroyed by the British in 1897. Similarly, the Ogbunike Cave in the eastern part of the country used to be a shrine and national monument. Apart from housing such cultural materials as ivory, bronze, and carved wooden objects, these institutions—temples, shrines, and palaces—were preserved as monuments in their own right. Some natural features, including caves, were also maintained as monuments. In these precolonial museums, objects were preserved because of their utilitarian or symbolic value.

This now-completed twenty-first century museum—the only natural history museum in Nigeria and only the second in Western Africa (the first being the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, Senegal)—has a more expanded set of objectives. Its own stated mission is:” to conduct research into the vast natural and cultural history of Nigeria; to serve as a repository of natural and cultural objects in Nigeria; to create scientific awareness on natural and cultural resources of Nigeria through annotated exhibitions for public enlightenment in display galleries; to prepare databases on natural history and cultural resources of Nigeria, and thus facilitate an information-retrieval system on them for use by the public and the scientific community as a basis for sustainable development; and to provide identification services on natural history and cultural objects to user groups, especially pest control, workers in archaeology, agriculture, veterinary and human medicine.”

One area in which the museum has made an enduring impact is in research and manpower training and development. For over thirty years, the museum has been involved in the development and growth in conservation research. This has resulted in the museum’s service as an ex situ conservation facility for Nigeria’s biodiversity resources, important rocks, minerals, and archaeology artifacts. Likewise, significant scientific research has been undertaken by curators. Coupled with the foregoing, the museum has been engaged in the training of staff and students—as well as for the university’s zoological and botanical departments—and for corporate and research institutions. The center has diploma certification programs for interested members of the public, workers in zoological gardens and parks, and government officials in relevant agencies and ministries. It has been training middle-level management in conservation and tourism for decades. The center also has the capacity to train highly skilled and high-level personnel and to award master’s and doctorate degrees—over 1,000 higher degrees were awarded for Conservation Science and Biosystematics within the last three decades. Given the strategic position of the museum, the Government of Nigeria often sends researchers and workers from the Commission for Museums and Monuments and from the National Park Service.

Despite the lack of a permanent physical home for most of its existence, the Natural History Museum has been vigorously involved in research and in the conservation of objects and artifacts in the country and beyond. The following is a list of its accomplishments: comprehensive research on ancient glass chemistry leading to the categorization of the glass- and beadmaking tradition of the Yoruba people; provenance studies on soapstone statues in archaeological context; provenance studies and materials characterization of ancient ceramic objects; taxonomy of reservoir fishes in Osun State of Nigeria; classification of the genus Vernonia in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa; technological evaluation of ancient metallurgical advances of the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria; complete classification of phyllosilicates and geochemical evolution of rocks of the schist belt of southwestern Nigeria; taxonomic evaluation by morphometric and molecular analyses of rodents and other small mammals from various vegetation belts across Nigeria; genetic studies and classification of the rice genus Oryza; archaeological/anthropological survey of natural, cultural, and historical sites for tourism development in Nigeria; inventory of geological, biological, anthropological, and archaeological diversity of Idanre Hills, Ondo State of Nigeria; multidisciplinary survey of Igbo–Oje abandoned settlement in the Ogbomoso South Local Government area of Oyo State of Nigeria; bioecological studies on honeybees of southwestern Nigeria; inventory of orb-weaving spiders in southwestern Nigeria; and mosquito-rock-aquatic plant association of southwestern Nigeria.

The center has been lauded by scholars and analysts for its massive contribution to the body of science literature. Its repository has been helpful to researchers that are engaged in diverse studies of the objects and remains in the museum. The museum has collected important rocks, minerals, and archaeology artifacts from Nigeria and neighboring countries, including Cameroon, for ex situ conservation. The collection has been expanded through donations from corporations, charities, and individuals. As of 2021, the center has more than 20,000 fully identified plants in the herbarium; there are about 5,150, identified bird specimens; and numerous specimens of rocks and minerals of southwestern Nigeria have been collected and catalogued. The collected archaeological artifacts—including the famous Ife terracotta, Ife glass beads, crucibles, and tobacco pipes—amount to more than 6,000. The center also has a number of collected mammals, fossils, and insects.
    Some have argued, however, that more effort should be made to bring these findings to the public because of the lack of information about these discoveries and given the fact that the Nigerian environment is replete with huge natural and archaeological specimens and relics with significant value to the scientific world.

The immeasurable impact of the museum is its engagement with the public. It displays its collections within and outside the university. This function has promoted in no small measure the expansion of education and knowledge. The staff employs the visual aids in unique ways to educate its audience, especially pupils of primary and secondary schools, but undergraduate and postgraduate students as well. Dioramas are crafted and designed to replicate habitats. The museum uses PowerPoint™ presentations supported by tape-recorded sounds of birdcalls. Special tours are organized for school parties and visits to the museum. Outreach programs are arranged that involve the display of gallery exhibitions, such as the archaeological exhibitions of the famous Ife potsherd pavements, traditional iron smelting techniques, different stone artifacts, and ritual objects.

A display of Nigeria’s rock and mineral resources


Display of Nigerian mollusks


    The museum uses illustrations and scale-models to present and simplify aspects of themes on display, as well as to stimulate student imagination. The result is that most students get a better understanding and experience from their visit.
    In a 2011 paper, then Vice Chancellor of OAU, Professor Michael O. Faborode, observed that “since its inception in 1974, the…museum has continued to attract a growing stream of visitors to its exhibits. This has been due not simply to the fact that it is the only one of its kind in Nigeria, but largely to the quality of its displays. This attribute has made it a point of interest to science teachers, researchers, conservationists, and tourists among numerous categories of guests. The museum, a veritable center for training and research activities, has also been listed by many tourist agencies as one of the major places of interest in Nigeria.”

There were 250,000 visitors to the museum by 2005; that number increased to over 500,000 by 2017. Although the outbreak of COVID-19 slowed down attendance in 2020, a recent drop in the cases of infections and deaths in Nigeria saw a steady rise in the number of tourists and visitors. School children represent more than 70 percent of the visitors.
    The quality of the programs and exhibits account for much of the appeal of the museum. However, the beauty and grandeur of the building cannot be minimized—what some describe as the eighth wonder of the world. That may be hyperbole, but Paul Ade-Adeleye, in a 2016 review on the Nigerian website, The Nation, described the building in these terms:
    “A first striking feature of the museum, from which it derives its fame, is its premises. The architectural construction orchestrates an illusion of a sculpting in high relief spread over a hundred meters. Its low hanging roofing bears great semblance to the inviting romanticistic appeal of a cottage in the woods, drawing visitors to explore the treasures within—not unlike the fairytale cottage made of candy…
    “You would think that the niftily designed exterior provides all the wonder of the Natural History Museum in OAU, but with the museum, it is a classic case of beauty and brains. Its research and contribution to the documentation of Nigeria’s cultural heritage is not only commendable, it is a worthy cause to support.”

The decolonization of Nigeria’s natural history brings to the fore the hidden heritage and objects of the country coupled with its scientific and material contribution to the Nigerian economy and educational sectors. The basic aim of the Natural History Museum at OAU, as with all museums, is to entertain, engage, educate, and provide materials for research on aspects of a people’s heritage and development. In terms of enlightenment, museums are comparable to schools, universities, libraries and other agencies of knowledge and culture. Museums preserve the tangible evidence of human history, creativity, and the physical aspects of the world we inhabit. They also give information about the past environment of the materials displayed; such materials then attract, entertain, and arouse curiosity among the people. A museum, therefore, gives people opportunities to rediscover themselves (including their natural resources) and to identify their place in the past and the role they can play in the contemporary world. It is a storehouse for the memories of the people.

The displays above and below of Benin bronzes are some of the ninety-four bronzes currently at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany. They were among the 3,500-4,000 bronzes that were looted in 1897 by British troops from the royal palace in Benin City before the city was set on fire. In an agreement between the governments of Germany and Nigeria, many of the 1,100 bronzes originally bought by Germany are beginning to be returned to Nigeria. 










Much of what has been collected and stored in Nigeria, however, was not decided by the people of Nigeria. As archaeologist Nwanna Nzewunwa, of the University of Port Harcourt, recounted in a 1984 paper that the development of modern museums began during the colonial period. In 1927, Kenneth Murray, an art teacher in the British Colonial Service, was appointed to advise the government on the effects of the colonial education system on local art. Murray advised the government to establish museums and to issue relevant laws to prevent illegal exportation of Nigerian works of art. With the outbreak of World War II, however, Murray’s recommendations for the establishment of museums in three centers in Nigeria could not be implemented. According to Nzewunwa, Murray was permitted “to continue with the purchase of antiquities pending the building of a permanent place” for the preservation of the cultural objects. The Nigerian Antiquities Service was established on July 28,1943, in response to appeals by concerned Europeans such as Murray. J.H.Braunholtz, a keeper in the Department of Ethnography of the British Museum, was sent to Lagos by the Colonial Office to advise the British government on the preservation of Nigerian cultural resources. In 1947, B.E.B. Fagg, a trained archaeologist, was appointed government archaeologist and assistant surveyor of antiquities. Fagg carried out much of the archaeological work in the Jos Plateau and helped in the establishment of the Jos Museums in 1952, in which most of the archaeological materials are preserved today. The then Department of Antiquities and the present National Commission for Museums and Monuments have been responsible for the establishment of museums in different parts of Nigeria to preserve Nigeria’s cultural objects. In Nigeria, there are now thirty-five national museums located either in the state capitals or in historic places or towns and in many smaller communities; in addition, there are local community museums and private galleries, numerous historical/cultural monuments and sites found throughout the country. For society, as a whole, museums provide valuable intangible benefits as sources of national, regional, and local identity. They have the singular capacity to reflect both continuity and change, to preserve and protect cultural and natural heritage while vividly illustrating the progression of the human imagination and the natural world.


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