This is to tell our story as Benin people, the way we want it to be told. Benin people teach and learn about their history and culture through oral accounts passed down from one generation to another. These accounts have been preserved for centuries.
The oral history sets the tone for the collection of indigenous knowledge through the interactions with the past and the contemporary culture of the Benin people.
Listening to Benin people contextualise objects through reflections on our history and traditions is an effective way to gain insight into our culture and history. It is a way we remember our past and appreciate present cultural activities, and how we convey our history to our listeners and future generations of Benin people and lovers of Benin studies. Culturally contextualising the ‘Benin Bronzes’ through oral-history narratives is meant to project the voices of Benin people on different aspects of their society. The contributors of the oral tradition spanned various categories of Benin society, from palace chiefs, title holders, and village and family elders to scholars, practitioners, and performing artists. These voices dig deep into the past, elaborating on historical facts with pieces of evidence from the present socio-cultural landscape. The elaboration of points through multiple voices projects today’s perspective, narrated by the Benin people, of what Benin Kingdom was like yesterday into the future.
The oral tradition is fundamental to a Benin-centred or Benin-centric perspective for understanding the historical and cultural importance of the Benin Bronzes. The idea behind the collection of these oral traditions is to emphasise the historical significance of Benin objects as an integral to Benin society as a living culture. This culture is often encountered during rituals and ceremonies or recreational activities. Moreover, the culture of the Benin people has historically been recounted from one generation to another through spoken word. When these oral histories are related based on objects as representation, the objects reveal the circle of memory and creativity.
What does a Benin-centred narration of the history of the Benin people mean globally? The focus delineates between descendants with firsthand knowledge and informed collaborators or between historical accounts bequeathed to indigenous Benin researchers and foreign researchers. The Benin-centred perspective on handling the oral history of a living culture faces the inherent challenge of limitations to knowledge based on secrecy in Benin ritual and culture. But above all, the facts of the historical traditions and cultural activities from different narratives remain sacrosanct. The differences in analogies or illustrations are the codes of secrecy embedded in the narratives to preserve the sanctity of Benin rituals and ceremonies. In Benin tradition, the more one knows the more secretive one becomes, and the oral histories are a collection of voices that reveal the facts, not the secrets. Hence, the contributors provided oral traditions for future generations to interact with in a global digital space.
Oral tradition sets the tone for the collection of indigenous knowledge in the interactions between the researchers and contributors on aspects of the culture of the Benin people. What is fascinating about the documentation of oral traditions is the contributors’ concern regarding the potential usage of information as well as its storage, accessibility and future availability. In such instances, the researcher and contributor agreed that it is imperative to document and preserve oral traditions from available knowledgeable sources. The shared objective was to make these oral traditions accessible to researchers and enthusiasts now and in the future. Digital Benin makes this indigenous knowledge available for future generations of Benin descendants globally as primary resource materials for research, education and aesthetic use. Also, it is relevant to museum professionals as a primary source for historical descriptions and an Edo-centric contextualisation of objects.
Listening to a contributor with firsthand experience is fascinating, and Digital Benin brings these oral traditions to its broad audience. Through Digital Benin, the different oral traditions are related to 131 institutions and more than five thousand objects from Benin Kingdom currently located in museums around the world. Beyond the urgency of cataloguing the globally dispersed historical Benin objects, Digital Benin saw the urgency of salvaging the oral traditions that were becoming extinct. The connection between the documentation of the historical Benin objects in different institutions and the oral traditions that the objects are anchored in forms another essential part of the Benin-centred approach to this project.
With the documented oral traditions, we can collect and digitise historical accounts of various cultural activities and practices. A good example is the songs which recount historical moments and describe the majesty of the monarch in the eyes of the Benin people. Thus, the oral traditions that have been collected for the Digital Benin platform are unique aspects of the Benin approach to documenting the history and culture that the historical objects are embedded in and originate from. This is significant for Digital Benin because most of the contributors of these oral traditions either narrated stories that have been already documented as secondary sources or brought in personal perspectives without any alteration to the facts. Hence, this digitisation, begun by Digital Benin, will enable future researchers to use these oral traditions without alterations by the researcher but as primary sources. The oral tradition will always be a veritable primary source for Benin studies, particularly when studying historical Benin objects. Digitising these oral traditions is an important way to preserve Edo culture.