In Commemoration of Didi Museum’s Journey of 40 Years

In Commemoration of Didi Museum’s Journey of 40 Years

As Nigeria’s first privately owned museum, Didi Museum, turns 40 this month, 

Yinka Olatunbosun revisits the history that preceded its existence

Unforgettable was that sad day when the news of the demise of a loved one was received. Edith Jibunoh was only 13. Her brother, Newton Jibunoh, who fondly called her Didi, which was a mispronunciation of the name, would carry her memory on for years by immortalising her with the first privately owned museum, known as Didi Museum. On May 11, 1983, the museum was formally inaugurated within the private residence of the founder, now Dr. Newton Jibunoh, on Akin Adesola Street in Victoria Island, Lagos. The institution was inaugurated by His Royal Highness, Alhaji Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano, who was also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

But the story behind the making of the Didi Museum ran deeper than personal experience; it was a product of national interest and indeed cultural preservation.

It was created as a matter of necessity and choice. Dr. Jibunoh was on the team that was assigned the task of retrieving Nigeria’s artworks and artefacts from Britain before FESTAC ’77, in time for the colloquium. Sadly, the British authorities refused to give back the works on the premise that Nigerians could not take care of them.

Subsequently, Jibunoh met with the Oba of Benin, who revealed to him that there were some artworks hidden in Isele-Uku. The Obi of Isele-Uku, in turn, gave Jibunoh the needed replica.

In his personal search, Jibunoh was dissatisfied with the state of the works domiciled at the National Museum. He thought he should do something about it. His appreciation for the arts started when he was a choir boy. While accompanying the white missionaries and their acolytes in the mission of burning native idols, he noticed that the missionaries did not always burn all the gathered idols and deities. They kept some aside, which they took away. Some of those supposedly taken away were only to be found much later at the British Museum.

Although his paths in life took him away from the liturgical, he became famed as a building engineer and was a former chairman of the building and civil engineering firm, Costain West Africa. Additionally, he became a desert adventurer, environmental crusader, and social activist. Also known as the ‘Desert Fox’, he gained renown for his adventures driving from Lagos to London and back three times: in 1966, 2000, and 2008, respectively.

He asserted himself as an avid art collector by collecting the artworks found in the village. He continued to forge connections with artists and young people, many of whom had grown their practice in the early years of the Didi Museum. It came as no surprise that the inaugural exhibition, with over 1200 attendees, featured two painters, Kenny Adamson and Adam Ajunam, both of whom exhibited over 75 works for the five-day exhibition.

The creation of Didi Museum was to serve as a forum for the research and preservation of arts and culture and the exhibition of contemporary Nigerian art. Additionally, the museum has the projection to create a market for local collectors that would sustain the art market in the long run, promoting Nigeria’s cultural heritage.

The then Director-General of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Dr. Ekpo Eyo, described the experience as “an excellent first attempt of Ethis kind of venture by a private citizen.”

In 1985, the Didi Museum also hosted an exhibition to commemorate the 25th independence anniversary in London, sponsored by British Airways.

The works inside the Didi Museum itself are never for sale. They are intentionally preserved for educational purposes, and this is accentuated by the presence of a mini-library with a wide range of books on African and Nigerian art history, among others. The museum has morphed into a cultural hub, hosting book readings, poetry, and exhibitions and inevitably nurturing the careers of many artists and culture workers, who often called themselves “Didi Museum Children” on the basis of their long years of association with the museum.

As part of the 40th anniversary, another museum of its kind will be opened in Delta State, the home state and current base of its 85-year-old founder.

“Without the art, there is no history, as the art documents our culture and heritage, and therefore the history of civilisations over the centuries,” Dr. Jibunoh declared recently at one of the activities marking the 40th anniversary celebrations.

In his speech commending the commemorative exhibition titled “No Art, No History”, held at the Nelson Mandela Gardens in Asaba, the current Emir of Kano, Alhaji Aminu Ado Bayero, quoted the following excerpts from his late father’s speech: “Attempts have been made in the past to establish private museums in Nigeria, but all have faded away. Therefore, we, the custodians of heritage arts, must support this unique effort of Newton Jibunoh.”

The new museum, which will serve as the headquarters, will be located at Nelson Mandela Garden, within the premises of the Asaba International Airport.

It is reportedly the second time the museum has attempted to locate itself in Delta State. Some years ago, it opened a branch in Akwukwu-Igbo, the hometown of Dr. Jibunoh, just a few kilometres from Asaba.

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