Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nigeria's legendary museologist, Ekpo Eyo, is dead


Prof Ekpo Eyo is dead

Prof Ekpo Eyo, the first Nigerian-born head of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM); is dead. He died in the early hours of Sunday, 29 May, 2011; at his home in Maryland, USA. Ekpo Eyo was, until 2006, a Professor of Anthropology at University of Maryland in the US.

Of Efik, Creek Town, Western Calabar, origin; Prof Ekpo Eyo was appointed Director of the then Federal Department of Antiquities in 1967; he is survived by his Yoruba-born widow, Augusta, and their children. Ekpo Eyo, who was made a Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution in 1984, is on record as Nigeria's museums chief with the longest uninterrupted tenure. He held that office for a record 18 years until his retirement in 1986.

Ekpo Eyo was an outstanding archaeologist, anthropologist and museologist. Archaeological pieces excavated in and around Owo in Ondo State are among spectacular contributions by Ekpo Eyo to museum work in Nigeria. As museologist, Ekpo Eyo left a legacy of efficient management of Nigeria’s National Museums by the time of his retirement.

For the most part, it is widely believed that the NCMM enjoyed smooth sailing throughout Prof. Ekpo Eyo’s leadership. In particular, he consolidated on the foundations laid by Murray and Fagg; and, also facilitated major international exhibitions of ancient Nigerian Art. It is also worth noting that the museum workforce reflected Nigeria’s federal character, as far as qualified personnel were concerned, during Ekpo Eyo’s tenure.

Those days, the Ekpo Eyo-led Federal Department of Antiquities helped to foster a good image for Nigeria through exhibition of indigenous antiquities/artefacts abroad. For example, in 1980, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria: Legacy of 2000 Years was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA from 14 August to 26 October. Two years later, in 1982, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria travelled to the British capital, where it was displayed at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London from 30 October, 1982 to 23 January, 1983.

These exhibitions engendered tremendous respect for Nigeria across the world. This is why most museum watchers hail Ekpo Eyo for the way he managed the NCMM during his tenure as helmsman. In fact, his leadership of the then Onikan, Lagos-based hub of that institution is seen as museum halcyon days in Nigeria; however, there was controversy over the gift of some precious antique objects by the then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, to the British crown; while Ekpo Eyo held sway at Onikan.

The NCMM was established in 1943 and its founding father was Mr. Kenneth C. Murray, a Superintendent of Education in the colonial service. Mr. Bernard Fagg later succeeded Murray for a while, after which Murray was reappointed to that office. In his first term, Mr. Murray was Surveyor of Antiquities for 14 years (1943 to 1957). Mr. Bernard Fagg, who succeeded Murray, held office for six years until 1963, when the former art master was re-appointed helmsman. Murray finally retired in 1968; and, though he put in a total of 19 years' as chief of Nigeria's Museums, his tenure was interrupted.

After his retirement from service in 1986, Ekpo Eyo worked as an anthropology lecturer at University of Maryland; where he was appointed a professor. He was also author of numerous papers and books, including the unique volume on antiquities; From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art; and, co-wrote The Terra cottas of Calabar with Dr. Christopher Slogar.

From shrines to showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art is published by the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication. Issued in 2008, the 256-page book also features Letty Wilson Bonnell and Christopher Slogar as Contributing Editors. From Shrines to showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art homes in on Historical Arts; which include Nok Terra cottas, Bakor (Ejagham) Monoliths, Calabar Terra cottas, Igbo Ukwu Bronzes, Ife Terra cottas and Bronzes, Esie Soap stone Figures, as well as Benin Bronzes and Ivories.

Despite its comparatively more ancient origins, not much has been written on the Calabar terra cottas. This is partly due to the fact that this piece of antiquity is something of a recent discovery, when compared to Ife’s Ori Olokun, found since 1910 and Igbo Ukwu artefacts, first unearthed around 1939. In comparison, the Calabar terra cottas were found in the 1980s.

Although little has been written on the Calabar Terra cottas, a few scholars have literally done justice to this aspect of Nigeria’s heritage; and, The Terracottas of Calabar, published by the Cultural Preservation Fund, is; arguably, the leading light on this subject. The Terracottas of Calabar is a joint project of the Old Residency Museum, Calabar; and the Cultural Preservation Fund, Washington DC, USA.

As we await announcement of funeral arrangements by the family, we pray that God grants Ekpo Eyo’s soul Peace Eternal.

-         By MAURICE ARCHIBONG


Epitaphs

“Apart from his (Ekpo Eyo’s) knowledge of museology, museography et cetera, he has real and innate love of the museum. Such is his passion and commitment that I suspect he would love to be buried in a museum premises. There won’t be perfect rest for his soul, if after death, he ‘discovered’ that anyone saddled with museum work, failed to perform satisfactorily. As a worker, Ekpo Eyo was himself, like a priceless Museum piece”.
 - Mr. Akin Liasu, a former Director of Monuments, Heritage and Sites, who retired from the NCMM in 2006.

“Prof. Eyo rose through the ranks; obviously, he would know his onions. And he did. He was also helped by exposure. He knew his work, and knew how to put people through”.
 - Rosemary Bodam, former Curator National Museum Jos.

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