Culture& interview with Kofo Adeleke

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Culture& Interviews Kofo Adeleke, President of Legacy, The Historical and Environmental Interest Group of Nigeria

Kofo Adeleke is a Founder Member, Trustee and President of Legacy, the Historical and Environmental Interest Group of Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation involved in the promotion and preservation of historic buildings and monuments in Nigeria. For almost 30 years, and on behalf of Legacy, she has engaged in research projects on historic buildings and monuments, and organised tours of historic sites. Kofo has contributed to many papers and publications, as well as public presentations, workshops and advocacy, on a variety of areas, including heritage management and public engagement with historic sites. She has had a lifelong passion for history, the built historical environment and indigenous arts and crafts.

Tell us about your work at Legacy and your mission over the last 25 years.

Legacy, The Historical and Environmental Interest Group will mark 25 years of its formal establishment this December, and we will be reflecting on how we have lived up to our mission to promote and preserve the character and appearance of historical buildings, monuments and the environment and cultural entities in Nigeria. Historic city walkabouts, tours to places of historic interest, exhibitions, workshops and newsletters and research documents to record information on historic buildings and sites, and to encourage preservation activities, have all formed part of what we have done, including some building restoration projects.

Do you think there are any differences between how the term ‘heritage’ is understood in Nigeria as compared to Europe?

Heritage can be tangible and intangible, where there is more emphasis on cultural practices and collective memories, cultural values and traditions, such as in Nigeria. In Europe tangible heritage does seem to be more apparent in terms of the collection of physical objects and the preservation of buildings. But the lines between tangible and intangible are not clear cut, and so while there often seems to be differences of emphasis they flow into each other and so these understandings of heritage are by no means completely distinct.

How do you regard the term ‘decolonisation’ in relation to Nigerian heritage?

There are many aspects to this, but I think a very important one is the need to address pre-colonial history in Africa, which during the colonial period was misrepresented and underplayed and continues to be so. Another aspect is how colonial history is told and through whose eyes. Research is going on in these areas and a lot of work is being published in America and Europe but more needs to be done by individuals and academic institutions within Nigeria, to provide a more balanced account of colonial history and explore and celebrate our pre-colonial history.

What about reparations? Is it enough for Western museums to return artefacts looted in the colonial era or should there also be reparation? If so, what form should the reparations take?

The conversation in this area, although it has been going on for a long time, has been very slow to move along in the direction that many had hoped. However, there does seem to be more energy behind it currently and some movement from certain museums who have opened discussions about the return of certain artefacts. Reparations can take many forms and could be done in the form of collaborations, partnerships and learning exchanges.

How did the recent Black Lives Matter movement affect the culture and heritage sector in Nigeria?

The impact of the Black Lives Movement reverberated around the world and it was not lost out in Nigeria, where it stimulated wide ranging discourse. Legacy did however react by writing an open letter to the Lagos State House of Assembly, who had very quickly declared that all vestiges of slave trade and colonialism should be removed from Lagos. Legacy highlighted the dangers of such a blunt reaction and suggested a much more nuanced approach, whereby the treatment of colonial history, buildings and monuments should be based on appropriate knowledge and informed decision making. Legacy believes that historic preservation must actively address truth telling, and the ideals of equality, inclusion and social justice, and we aim to ensure that these ideals are always reflected in our strategic thinking and practice.

In your Think Piece for this year’s ICOM IMD, you said, in relation to the Covid-29 pandemic: ‘museums will be more reliant on information technology, so crucially ways must be found to generate income from digital content’. Do you think such digital content will change the way audiences regard heritage objects in terms of their authenticity or originality?

This is interesting, I had not really thought deeply about that. The experience of visiting a museum or gallery and being able to examine things up close is a different visual, and often other sensual experience, from looking at something through a computer or phone screen. But when you are trying to reach new audiences, these new methods of engaging people, who may not able to visit or who may not know what is available must be used. There is a lot of theorising about ethics and risks around the authenticity and originality of digital content and I believe that it is all part of the development trajectory of museum practices, and heritage and cultural organisations in developing countries must also engage in such discourse.

Do you think that such digital strategies have any relevance to what Western museums might be like when looted artefacts are returned to their rightful owners?

You may be right, digital strategies may be used to do this. Already the archive contents of many large well supported museums are available online. Their catalogues of artefacts are often so huge that thousands of objects are kept hidden away in deep cellars, and digital technology could very well be the solution to this.

What are your plans for 2021? Are you working on any exciting projects?

At Legacy we are completely thrilled to be celebrating our 25th Anniversary! It is a time for reflection on what we have achieved and the efforts of so many individuals and organisations who have helped us to reach where we are today. It also serves as a reminder of the wealth and diversity of heritage which needs to be preserved and promoted, and therefore the huge amount of work that still needs to be done, as Legacy continues to promote knowledge and raise awareness about our activities for both adults and young people. Despite Covid-19 dealing a blow to the progress with our plans we have been able to collaborate online and celebrations for our 25th anniversary, which will continue throughout 2021, kicked off with a webinar ‘Nigeria’s Built Heritage: Untapped Wealth’ in collaboration with the Nigerian Institute of Architects Lagos Chapter. We will be collaborating with Google Arts and Culture, planning a series of heritage master classes, a project on endangered archives, an art exhibition on heritage buildings, production of commemorative souvenirs for fundraising, and the refurbishment of the Mini Museum located in Jaekel House, a colonial style building restored by Legacy, as well as the launch of campaigns to restore other historic sites in Legacy’s custody.

Interview by Svetlana Leu. Image courtesy Kofo Adeleke.