Ẹyo Otọ
Eiloghosa Obobaifo

The aim of this space is to display the historical objects in their correct Edo designation, which creates object groups that use vocabulary different to that of museums outside of Nigeria. The object groups are displayed visually, described in written language and vocalised in spoken language. The data provided by the current holding institutions is grouped by the identified Edo designation.

This space has been created to give insight into the cultural relevance of these objects by including the Edo designations of the objects and describing them in introductory texts in their use, function, production and art-historical interpretation. The visual description makes it possible for the users to access and observe an overview of the individual objects.

This is foundational research into the naming of historical objects in their Edo context. Ẹyo Otọ expresses the notion of a foundation, and here it can be interpreted as a foundation to close gaps in current museum data, institutional knowledge production or even the exclusion of spoken, visual and written Edo language about these objects. Ẹyo Otọ is a foundation for further study about the historical objects and their Edo embeddedness. Similar to Ẹyo Otọ, with which Edo people celebrate laying the foundation of a new building, this digital research space shows the beginning of knowledge production that consists of the rigorous involvement and participation of Edo people in Nigeria and the diaspora. The following text describes how this knowledge was brought together with research in Benin City, Lagos and an international community of experts:  

This research is interdisciplinary. It is grounded in the study of a language that has developed from a colonial context in its written form; historical research was applied to understand the vast gaps and absence of objects descriptions in Edo language; museology played a significant role in understanding cataloguing practices, institutional histories and art-historical interpretations of objects; and the field of digital humanities was the basis to build a digital catalogue that allows for flexibility and multiplicity in further research. The research is in the of context, and contrasts with, current museum data.

This research started by reviewing existing literature that describes the historical use and production of Edo objects from an Edo-centric perspective, particularly in the Edo language. Archives and libraries, such as those of the national museums in Benin and Lagos and the Institute for Benin Studies, became a resource for literature that has not yet been digitised and is authored by specialists from Benin City, Lagos and the diaspora. The literature review therefore had to begin with visits to these museums. Our approach was to collect data on the objects in the institutions and contribute our own research on the objects.

Research in the National Museums in Benin City, Owo and Lagos

In the project’s first three months, we contacted museums in Nigeria to establish which of these held objects that were relevant to the scope of Digital Benin. We sent letters to authorities and contacted the director general of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), Prof. Abba Isa Tijani, and the curators of the museums in Nigeria we would be visiting. We sent introductory letters to the Oba of Benin and the governor of Edo state to officially introduce the project and the team and to solicit their support in conducting the project in Benin City and visiting historical sites without encountering hindrances. We set up meetings and scheduled workweeks at three museums (Benin, Lagos, Owo) that we identified as research partners in Nigeria for Digital Benin.

Our first visit was to the National Museum Benin City, where we consulted with the curator, Mr Theophilus Umogbai, and the head of storage, Mr Boniface. They told us the history of the museum including how it was established, which contextualised the data production we encountered on catalogue cards and in inventory books. They provided us with all the catalogue cards and inventory books, which we went through manually to identify objects relevant to the scope of Digital Benin. The database of their objects contained thousands of cards, and with the support of the museum staff we were able to identify the data that we needed to digitise. We went through and photographed the files from 1959 to 1979. Digitising this data has provided the project with a myriad of information on Edo/Benin objects. We took trips to Lagos and Owo, where a similar process was carried out in the museums there; we also consulted with various museum staff on the institutional history and objects in the institutions. Among them was the curator Mrs Adeboye and Mrs Pamela Otuka, head of storage at the National Museum in Lagos , who took us through the various stores of Benin objects and gave us permission to document catalogue cards, logbooks and object inventories. Some objects that were accessible in Lagos and Benin City were photographed, but most of the objects were in storage, and we were only able to digitise historical photographs from the inventory cards within the available time frame. Some object photography was taken from Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner’s research in the institutions for her exhibition and catalogue Benin Kings and Rituals (Plankensteiner, 2007[17]).

Digitisation of Catalogue Cards

We manually went through boxes of catalogue cards in the storage of the Benin and Lagos museums and identified the cards of Benin objects that were relevant to our work in the museums, while in the National Museum in Owo object logbooks were scanned. We scanned over two thousand catalogue cards, photographed objects and received digital images from Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner. The scanning process was the first digitisation of the museums’ data and is a precursor to further digitising projects in the future of the institutions.

Data Selection and Relevance

Once we had digitised the objects’ catalogue cards from the museums, members of the team – namely Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner, Prof. Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, Dr. Felicity Bodenstein and Imogen Coulson – reviewed the datasets provided by each institution to decide which objects to include in the platform in line with the guiding parameters. For the digitised data from the museums in Lagos, Benin City and Owo, an elaborate triaging process was scheduled with an internal online database for the reviewing panel to comment on each catalogue card and write a decision about the inclusion according to the project’s parameters. In-person review meetings between Eiloghosa Obobaifo and Prof. Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona as well as Imogen Coulson and Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner were scheduled that contributed to the detailed review of objects. The coordination and execution of the review and triaging process was a long-standing part of the project’s research. Further details about this process can be found in the object research and review section.

Transcribing Catalogue Cards

This step came after the scanning process of over two thousand catalogue cards. Most of the cards were hand-typed between the 1950s and 1980s and are the first inventory describing the objects in a ‘typical’ museum documentation, with fields such as material, description and catalogue number. At this stage, it was noticed that some of the objects were misrepresented in the Edo language describing the objects’ designations. The Edo language noted on the catalogue cards was either misspelt or letters had been omitted or swapped. It became evident that the documentation of the objects was not done by an Edo speaker and the descriptions of the objects lacked research on Edo language, historical use, production and functions. It became imperative to include and source Edo designations and include spoken language to indicate the pronunciation of the indigenous names of the objects. Digital Benin made it a focus of research in Benin City and Lagos to properly represent objects in the Edo language. Edo is foremost a spoken language, and the meaning of the words changes with the intonation. Including spoken language in the digitisation process meant conducting original research on the meaning and linguistic and ethnographic context of the objects. A research plan was produced, comprising field research, expert consultancy, peer reviews and media production sessions. The entire process was scheduled to last eighteen months, and it included the following:  

Identifying Gaps in the Data during the Digitisation

In the beginning of the transcription process, we encountered Edo classifications of objects in the Benin and Lagos catalogue cards and observed that a fair number of these were misspelt and misinterpreted. Most of the objects did not have any Edo designations, and it became evident that the objects had never been identified and documented in their Edo language context in an extensive and thorough way. Until now, the objects on this platform had been robbed of their correct language context.

Field Research, Further Literature Reviews and Peer Reviews: Finding a Solution for Original Research

The methodology that we chose for this research included the literature review, field research and peer reviews. The qualitative approach to identify the correct Edo words used by carvers, bronze casters and religious practitioners was to conduct participant observation in Benin City, to identify and interview practitioners who are still producing and using contemporary objects and to consult and interview historians, linguists and curators. In the first year of the project, over fifteen practitioners in Benin City invited us to observe the context in which they use and produce the objects. Multiple visits to our informants and discussions on object histories, their contexts and production led to field research that aimed to uncover the Edo designations of the historical objects in their respective contexts. Images of objects were printed out or shown on mobile devices in meetings to peer review the Edo words used. Some of these sessions were recorded and revisited, others were documented in field notes and journals afterwards.

The existing literature on written language in Edo, such as Omoregbe, E. (2020). Basic Linguistic Features in Edo Writing System: A Case for Uniformity. In U. Usanlele (Ed.), Benin Studies Under the Scalpel: Essays in Honour of Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien (pp. 335–352). Institute for Benin Studies,[340]’, ‘Obazee, G. O. (2020). The Writing of Edo Language. In U. Usanlele (Ed.), Benin Studies Under the Scalpel: Essays in Honour of Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien (pp. 353–371). Institute for Benin Studies,[341], was fundamental to the construction of the controlled vocabulary because it showed the potential approaches to forming designations for objects in Edo – for example, more subject-oriented or context-driven identifications. However, owing to the time constraints of the project, we started with the object-oriented approach formulated here. To uncover the Edo designation for most of the objects we made multiple consultation visits to Mr Patrick Oronsaye, an art historian in Benin City; Prof. Mrs Agbontaen-Eghafona, professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Prof. Mrs Esohe Omoregbe, professor in the Department of Linguistics, both at the University of Benin; and Aiko Obobaifo, a local historian. This expert panel researched, respectively, the art history, ethnography and language of the Edo people, and they are cited throughout the platform.

Inclusion of Spoken, Written and Visual Language

Foremost a spoken language, Edo has been documented and developed as a written form since 1974[341]. It is evident in the documentation discovered on the catalogue cards and in the literature review that the description and correct terminology for the objects on this platform were missing before the research had begun.

The misspellings were also proof that the written form of the Edo language is not sufficient for a continuous standard to describe the objects, and therefore we started to develop the vocabulary for the objects in a standardised written and spoken language. It also became apparent that indigenous names are not commonly displayed in online and digital databases for objects in museums. We focussed on bringing spoken language into the correct identification of the objects. For now, the approach is object-oriented rather than subject-focused. Since Edo is foremost a spoken language, the meaning of words is contextual, which means that object designations are subject to the context in which they are being used. Hence, there is a multiplicity of possibilities for naming, understanding and describing the same object in Edo. For this project, we chose a consistent approach in defining an object with a more general description and the context in which it is used. We started to expand on a vocabulary for subjects that objects refer to, but owing to time constraints, we developed the current approach of naming objects in their indigenous designation. With this vocabulary, we created the starting point for future research within and external to this project.

The result was the creation of the only online database of Edo objects that includes their indigenous designation in spoken and written form. This contribution to the distribution of knowledge about the objects allowed the research team to group them in their indigenous Edo understanding and context rather than in the institutionally constructed contexts external to their Edo understanding. We also show these object groups in a visual form interpreted by the Edo artist Osaze Amadasun as an extension of the understanding that these objects often refer to each other in meaning and context visually. The written, spoken and visual forms of Edo object groups are a conscious, precise development of the multiplicity that the objects display. This has also created room for further research, and we hope that Digital Benin is a baseline in this regard.

Vocalisation of Edo Designations 

By including the vocalisation of Edo terms, we want to show that words can be spelt similarly but have different pronunciations because of intonation and meaning. To achieve this, we consulted linguists and experts in Edo language: Prof. Dr. Esohe Omoregbe of the Linguistic Department of the University of Benin and Mr. Aiko Obobaifo, historian and director at the Institute for Benin Studies, both Benin people. Both experts reviewed the vocabulary in their peer groups and participated in the workshop conducted at the Institute for Benin Studies in May 2022 for multiple sessions on the finalisation of the controlled Edo vocabulary. During these sessions, their voices were recorded and processed by a sound engineer for inclusion in the online platform.

Object Description and Object Grouping

The research on the inclusion of the spoken, written and visual language for the grouping of the Edo objects shown in this platform was led by Eiloghosa Obobaifo with the support of Prof. Dr. Konkunre Eghafona, who has written numerous texts on the history, use and function of the royal artworks. The texts for the object groupings were authored in collaboration with Imogen Coulson. The collaborative space created in this research showed that the English terms used most prominently in current literature were often insufficient for a direct translation. The research for the controlled Edo vocabulary was therefore conducted separately from the development of the English vocabulary and was based on the qualitative research in Benin City described above. The description of the object groups was written collaboratively, and with the support of the PIs in this project, where object-group names were direct translations into English. Where objects have a further or differing Edo or English terminology, the object descriptions were written specifically for these groupings.

The technical team built custom software for the grouping of objects after the controlled vocabulary and consequent programmatic actions were defined. All objects were reviewed and linked under the Digital Benin-authored Edo and English vocabulary.

Downloadable Educational Printouts

Illustrations of the object groups can be downloaded as line drawings for colouring and learning more about the objects. Osaze Amadasun created this study tool to inspire a more detailed study of the objects in their patina, patterns and differences. The QR codes on each printout can be accessed by smartphone and pull up the grouped objects, vocalisations and descriptions. We want to encourage the online and offline artistic interpretation and exploration of the objects in this space.

Links to Research Spaces on Digital Benin

Ẹyo Otọ is one of the entry points on this platform and provides the foundation for the consecutive spaces such as the catalogue, institution list, and Itan Edo. The space links to other entry points into the study of the objects on this platform in the texts about the use, function and cultural contexts of the objects. The links bring the user to other research spaces on the platform, such as Itan Edo, which shows, for example, the hierarchy of the guilds referenced in the text, including short descriptions of their function. All objects grouped in Ẹyo Otọ link to the catalogue data, making it possible to access the data provided by 132 institutions. Ẹyo Otọ prioritises the objects in their use and function, which determines the display of the objects grouped according to their Edo designation. 

 The Edo designations identified here are part of ongoing research. The hope is that this research will be used in the future by institutions in Nigeria and worldwide as an educational tool and source for a controlled vocabulary for the historical Benin objects. We encourage the use of the displayed vocabulary.