The catalogue is a central repository of information about historical Benin objects provided by the institutions on this platform. We acquired and reviewed data about 5,246 objects in 131 institutions (see Data Acquisition and Data Management and Object Research and Review). This data can be viewed, searched, filtered and studied; this catalogue links these datasets on a metadata level.
Data authored by Digital Benin as well as provided by the institutions can be searched in the catalogue; the Digital Benin information is noted as such and separated from the institutional data. These categories and designations are not provided as the definitive terms for objects or types of objects but instead aim to reflect the research and knowledge to date. Showing a multiplicity of voices, knowledges, information gaps and operations, the histories and movements of objects described in the museum data encourage connections, comparisons and further study within the project and beyond.
This tool makes the heritage of Benin Kingdom more accessible and assists stakeholders and researchers across the globe in searching, exploring and locating objects currently held in institutional collections. Research into the historical contexts and uses of these objects has also been woven into the catalogue, which aims to provide context for the data received from the institutions. Users can read and listen to the designations of objects in the Edo language, a gap detected in the data provided by the institutions. The Edo designation space is linked to the catalogue through the Edo designations on each object card and object-data page. Provenance and institution pages are linked in the Digital Benin research box on each object page.
Digital Benin preserves the structures and data produced by the participating institutions in order to reflect the ways each institution records, stores and presents its own data. This institutional data was linked to a Digital Benin-authored metadata structure. The ‘All Fields’ filter allows the user to select a specific field in combination with a text search. Selecting a specific field means that the text search is only executed in the selected field. The fields in the filters are linked to all fields that were identified with overlapping values – for example, material links to fields such as medium, materials, and Materialien, or English designation links to object title, title, name, and Objektname. The field titles were developed from the data in an inductive study of fields in relationship to their values and a broader consideration of cataloguing practices in the museum and data/metadata standards in the museum context. Dr. Anne Luther revised and finalised the Digital Benin-authored metadata structure throughout the data acquisition phase, and conversations with staff and museum professionals provided the data in the cases that needed clarity. She received data indexes from institutions for reference and consulted a literature review of historical digitization processes and other projects in the digital humanities that bring together data from multiple sources in the museum context for developing this comparative metadata structure. A total of 2,896 unique field titles were detected and compared, and 3,502 field titles were mapped into the Digital Benin-authored metadata structure. The institutions provided between four and 294 fields. The results of this research are the following metadata links:
A full list of the uniquely mapped field titles is available on request by writing an email to Dr. Anne Luther at email@example.com. This structure is unique to the project because it considered the scope and front-end interactions of the platform. However, it was developed to potentially be developed on a larger scale to link museum databases internationally in an online catalogue that allows searches across museum databases without requiring institutions to change their data structure. It is therefore regarded as a prototype for further development in the field of digital heritage.
The Digital Benin-authored (DB-authored) structure of Object Categories and English Designations was developed during the final year of the project (November 2021–July 2022; see figure 1). This structure can be used to filter objects in the catalogue, and it is also an area of research in and of itself. Digital Benin has not altered or changed the institutional data visible in the catalogue. Instead, we aim to preserve the language and data structures used by institutions to show the ways in which museums have understood, categorised and written about their Benin holdings. The DB-authored structure of Object Categories and English Designations, alongside the Edo Designations, improves access to the full range of objects included in the catalogue by grouping together objects described in different ways by different institutions. The term ‘object’ is used throughout this documentation to describe the holdings in institutional collections and the records in the catalogue, however it is recognised that many constitute more than ‘objects’ in the sense of inanimate ‘things’. They are in fact historical documents, items of commemoration and ancestral veneration, and are symbolically and spiritually potent.
After first explaining the concept behind the Object Categories and English Designations used in the catalogue and their functionality, we will outline the process through which we arrived at the structure visible in the Catalogue.
Concept: Object Categories group objects broadly by use and function. Some of these group together specific English Designations into broader categories – for instance, Figures, Heads, Staffs, and Textiles. Some objects are linked directly with these categories, as there is no appropriate specific English Designation – for instance, a staff may only be linked with Staff if it has not yet been possible to identify what kind of staff it is. Similarly, not all Heads can be identified as a Commemorative Head or Trophy Head, and so forth. Objects can be linked to more than one of these categories, as many objects have more than one use or function.
Functionality: Object Categories are filters that group objects which fall into a specific category. When using the filter function, a list of the English Designations which fall under this Object Category appears, allowing the user to either select an Object Category on its own or both an Object Category and English Designation. The ‘and’ logic will show results which agree with both filters selected, whereas ‘or’ logic will filter for objects which agree with either one of the filters selected.
English Designations (previously Object Terms)
Concept: English Designations are terms developed from the institutional data in combination with research about the Benin objects. A number of these are specific to objects produced and used by Edo people in the past and present (e.g. Altar of the Hand, Bird of Prophecy Staff, Udo-style Head), whereas others are terms which could appear in a museum-database object-term hierarchy or nomenclature authority index (e.g. Door, Key, Stand). Not all objects are labelled with an English Designation, as some may only be identified on the level of Object Category.
Functionality: English designations can be filtered in combination with other English Designations and in combination with Object Categories. They can be filtered using both ‘and’ and ‘or’ logic.
Initially it was hoped that Object Types could be directly developed from the data provided by institutions. However, we quickly realised that this would not be possible as museums identified objects so variably and labels of objects were also frequently misattributed. The institutions which have provided data to Digital Benin are also extremely varied in their origins and collections, and include art institutions, natural history museums, and ethnographic museums. Thus, the ways in which museums have labelled and understood objects within the frameworks of their institutions is inconsistent. As Hannah Turner has concisely written: ‘Simply put, no two museums are alike in their classification of Indigenous heritage. Nomenclatures and naming practices are therefore deeply connected to the history and development of each individual institution’ (Turner, 2015, p.661).
Additionally, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, research and scholarship have led to the development of terms for objects in English which are specific to royal objects from Benin Kingdom, for example ‘Altar of the Hand’ and ‘Ancestral Staff’. Among researchers and scholars there is also rarely a consensus when it comes to the use of specific terms. For this reason, we have made decisions based on which terms are most accurate based on discussions with the research team in Benin City – namely Eiloghosa Obobaifo, Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie and PI Prof. Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafonan – and with contributors who are users, producers and scholars in the field, such as Patrick Oronsaye and Mr John Osazeme Igbineweka. For example, although ‘Rattle Staff’ is commonly used to describe Ukhurhẹ, we have decided to use ‘Ancestral Staff’, as it more properly represents the commemorative purpose and properties of these staffs rather than focusing on the noise-making component.
From here, the decision was made to create a list of terms for objects – at this point described as Object Terms – that was both based on the datasets provided by museums and incorporated findings from published and unpublished research and scholarship on Benin objects. A wide range of literature was consulted – however, the three publications which played a significant role in developing the DB-authored structure have been Kate Ezra’s (1992) Royal Art of Benin, the exhibition catalogue Benin Kings and Rituals edited by Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner (2007), and Plankensteiner’s (2010) Benin. An initial list of objects was developed, although it quickly became apparent that the levels of research vary across the spectrum of Benin objects. While some are specifically identified, for instance ‘Altar of the Hand’, others could only be labelled as ‘Staff’ or ‘Figure’. Rather than creating a multilayered or hierarchical object-term index, as is found in many museum databases, we wanted to keep the structure simple. Therefore, there are only two layers to the DB-authored structure.
At this stage the idea of Object Categories was also incorporated. These are groupings which relate to the ways objects were used or functioned in the past as well as in the present. Barbara Plankensteiner (2010, p.9) has written that ‘Benin’s court art can be categorised as serving three different purposes. It was used in religious contexts, as memorials, and for conspicuous display’. Working from these three broad categories which reflect the purpose of the objects, a series of Object Categories was developed which provides insights into the use of the different objects. For example, Ancestral Staffs and Commemorative heads are commemorative and used on altars and shrines. Owing to the nature of the Digital Benin parameters (for more information, see Object Research and Review documentation), not all objects included in the catalogue are considered royal court art. Thus, additional categories to account for this needed to be developed, for example Household & Everyday Objects, Casting Materials and Trade & Exchange Goods.
By adding this layer, we aimed to provide additional points of access to objects in the catalogue. These categories show groupings of objects relating to different contexts, for example Palace Architecture & Ornamentation, which brings together objects that would have decorated the palace – relief plaques, roof figures and more. Furthermore, these categories aimed to enable the labelling of objects beyond their form but also offer insights into the ways they were used in the past and continue to be used today. Objects may appear in more than one object category to illustrate their mutability – for instance, bells are both musical instruments and altar objects. Similarly, ancestral staffs are ceremonial objects, altar objects and musical instruments (because of the noise-making component produced by the rattle which is integral to these staffs).
Separated from the main body of the catalogue are contextual objects, which are divided into three further object categories: ‘Benin-Portuguese Ivories’, ‘Beyond Benin’ and a selection of objects made ‘post-1930s’. The Benin-Portuguese Ivories made their way to Europe prior to 1897. Although they were likely made by members of the Igbesanmwan, it is believed that they were commissioned by Europeans for audiences and markets at home (Curnow, 1983). These are separated from the main corpus presented on Digital Benin, as they were not looted by the British in 1897 nor in the years subsequently. However, they are useful for understanding and representing the context in which objects were made and used in Benin City and Benin Kingdom prior to 1897.
The category ‘Beyond Benin’ comprises objects believed to have been made elsewhere in the area, based on stylistic and iconographic differences. These objects left the region, known today as southern Nigeria, before the 1930s. Some of these objects, specifically the brass and bronze pieces, are known in academia as ‘Lower Niger Bronzes’ (for overview, see Peek, 2021). Often the provenance of these pieces is similar to those looted from Benin Kingdom which left the region in the following years (e.g. Coulson, Hudson & Nixon, in press). However, it has not been possible to make a link to 1897 or Benin City based on the provenance information currently available. This category illustrates gaps of information that surround the Benin holdings in museum collections today, and highlights areas for future research.
A final category within the contextual objects is a small group of pieces produced by named Edo artists after 1930. These objects are important for understanding change and continuity in Benin art production into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Agbontaen-Eghafona, 1988). In 1927, Ọba Eweka II set up the Benin Divisional Council School of Art, which led to a renewed art production in the city (Nevadomsky, 2005 ). For this reason, artworks produced in and after the 1930s are included in the catalogue.
Alongside each of the object terms and object categories is a description or ‘authority note’. The aim of these descriptions is to provide a brief insight into what these objects were and how they may have been used as well as to ‘weave’ other areas of the platform into the catalogue – for example, the historical context and oral history. In doing so, users can follow the ‘threads’ woven across the platform, exploring areas of interest to them. Additionally, these descriptions can also direct users to key literature and resources via the inclusion of citations which link to the bibliography space. In this way, Digital Benin operates as a platform which can provide a foundation for, and stimulate, future research.
As this structure was being developed, a research space focusing on Edo designations for objects was being formed. Read more about the process behind this research in the Ẹyo Otọ documentation. At the beginning, these two research spaces were separate, but at a workshop in December 2021 we began to work together. During the workshop we brought together the two lists of Edo designations and object terms to look at how they corresponded. Using the datasets that had been provided by museums, we also looked at objects to see how they aligned with these groupings. Changes were made to both the object terms and Edo designations, and we identified areas that needed further research.
In early 2022, research on the information gaps was conducted, the list of object terms was expanded and work continued on the descriptions for both object terms and object categories. During this time, institutional data was still being shared with Digital Benin, and thus the catalogue was continuously expanding. It was necessary to continually loop back to the objects to identify new gaps in the research. Due to the breadth of the overview of Benin objects in the catalogue, there were a number of objects that fell outside of those previously published or researched in great depth. During this period, the research for the object terms and Edo designations developed in tandem and in conversation with one another.
Over time, we realised that the object term structure was not equivalent to the Edo designation structure. For example, in the object terms, ‘ceremonial swords’ was used to encapsulate objects identified in Edo more specifically as Ada and Ebẹn. In other cases, more specific terms were used in the English object types than in the Edo designations – for example, Ama is used to describe objects identified separately as Relief Plaques and Carved Wooden Panels. Thus, it would not be possible to directly match object terms with Edo designations and apply those to all objects labelled with one or the other.
Our research also found that some object terms do not have an equivalent Edo designation. The reasoning for this differed – in some cases it was related to fundamental differences in the way objects were understood between museum-based ontologies and object-term authority indexes. For example, the object term ‘mould’ was used to describe a series of objects which had been collected to show the technical stages of the lost-wax casting process, however in Edo there is no equivalent word. Instead, each mould had a different name depending on the object being cast. For example, if a bell was being cast, it would be known as Erorọ (bell), or if a commemorative head was being cast, the mould would be called Uhunmwu-Elao. In other cases, there was no Edo designation because the terms were derived from twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship and did not correspond to the way these objects were known and understood in Edo. An example of this is the Udo-style figures, thus named in English because it is believed they were cast in the town of Udo outside Benin City. The style of these figures is different from those believed to have been cast in Benin City, and there is an unusual rectangular-shaped hole in the back of the castings. These examples illustrate the different ways objects are known and understood by different knowledge systems. These differences had consequences for the object labelling process in the catalogue.
One of the later developments was a shift from using ‘object terms’ to describe the English terms for objects to ‘English designations’. It was felt that the use of ‘English designations’ rather than ‘object terms’ or ‘object types’, which are more commonly used as field titles for this data in museum databases, illustrated that these labels are only the English-language labels rather than objective or authoritative terms for these objects. The English designations are rather a point of access and frame of reference for English speakers and readers. With this subtle change in language, we aimed to reflect the inherent problems of using English – a colonial language – to describe these objects and instead illustrate that this is only one way of knowing and understanding them. The use of English to describe these objects (and many others in museum collections) is inherently tied with the violent and destructive colonial history of the British Empire, when they were looted from Benin Kingdom and separated from their indigenous Edo language. In contrast, the Edo designations space documents these objects in the local Edo language, both in written form and with male and female vocalisations.
Between May and June 2021, the descriptive texts for the designations were brought together. Whereas the English designation texts tended to utilise scholarship produced in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Edo designations texts included insights into past and present usage, the relationship to oral history and Edo proverbs. We wanted to maintain the different voices, perspectives and knowledges represented in the different texts; there were also similarities in the information presented which led to repetition. In the texts, we also sought to show when the English designations and Edo designations did not operate in parallel, directing the user to more precise Edo or English terms that explained why this was so. For example, the text describing Ama will direct users to both Relief Plaque and Carved Wooden Panel.
As of July 2022, the DB-authored object category and English designation structure consists of twenty-one object categories and 126 English designations (see a full list below). The English designations used here do not aim to be an authoritative index of ‘correct’ terms for these objects in English but are part of a wider process of researching and understanding these objects. Given the short time frame, which was at most 10 months, and in some cases just a couple of months, the team was able to work with data provided by museums. There are many uncertainties and grey areas which remain, and we have sought to highlight these to stimulate ongoing research.
A full list of object categories and English designations is detailed below:
The labelling of objects with English designations, object categories and Edo designations was done through a combination of manual and automatic processes using a tool purpose-built by the developers B/t. All the object category labels were applied manually, and all objects were manually labelled with an English or Edo designation. The corresponding term in either language (if there was one) was then applied automatically. For example, all objects labelled with the English designation ‘arm cuff’ had the Edo designation ‘Ikoro’ automatically applied via a programmatic action.
As explained above, the English and Edo designations do not operate in parallel – not all Edo designations have a direct parallel in English, and vice versa. These terms were developed over approximately seven months. Data was shared with the project throughout this period, and thus it was not possible to identify the appropriate Edo designations for all objects because of time constraints.
Although these designation lists do not work in parallel, they are related. Objects in the catalogue were manually labelled with either Edo or English designations. This tool allowed us to label objects in either English or Edo and for the appropriate term(s) in Edo or English (if there was one) to be automatically applied to the objects. Four different programmatic actions were developed to enable the automatic labelling of objects in the respective languages. These were:
These programmatic actions were recorded in an internal database, and from there the results could be seen in the custom purpose-built software tool. The automatic application of respective labels through these programmatic actions reduced the amount of time spent labelling objects. However, as over five thousand objects are included in the catalogue and each object needed to be labelled with either the Edo or the English designation, the process was still time-consuming. A background knowledge of Benin objects and the way the museums describe the objects, as well as a hands-on experience working with the objects in the past, were all critical for making the process quicker and easier.
A major challenge facing Digital Benin was bringing together and producing data for over five thousand objects from 131 institutions in over twenty countries to make them searchable in a single catalogue. Since each institution records and structures their data differently, there was a great deal of variation in how objects were described. The methodology presented here aimed to address this issue and improve the searchability, and thus accessibility, of the catalogue. The long history of research on Benin objects, as well as the possibility for research and collaboration with team members, scholars, and experts in Benin City over the past ten months, has led to the filters that can be used in the catalogue. Furthermore, these filters and their accompanying descriptions allow users to explore other areas of the platform: users can watch and listen to experts discuss the historical and cultural importance of the objects in Itan Edo, and the locations where they were made and used can be viewed on the Map. Meanwhile, the names of the objects in Edo, their original language, can be heard in Eyo Otọ. Each of these different spaces can be accessed via the description texts, and vice versa. By situating these objects within their cultural and historical contexts, Digital Benin aims to present their symbolic and social importance in a way that a catalogue alone does not allow.