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Decolonizing the archive; the material culture of Chief Nanna Olomu 1894-present.

MPhil Dissertation Cambridge University

This dissertation is divided into an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion.

Chapter 1 reconstructs Chief Nanna’s biography based upon the written record, to understand who Chief Nanna was as a historical figure. Particular attention is given to the Ebrohimi Expedition, a punitive expedition carried out by the British against Chief Nanna from July to October 1894. I will trace the chronology of the expedition in order to examine what impact war had on the trajectory of Chief Nanna’s life and how this event came to define his legacy. In this way, Chapter 1 provides an analysis of Chief Nanna and the Ebrohimi expedition to situate him and the defining event of his life within their historical context. The events at Ebrohimi are understudied compared to the more infamous punitive Benin Expedition in 1897, which is in part due to contemporary debates around the restitution of the Benin bronzes. The next two chapters take a material culture approach in order to construct an alternative, more holistic biography of Chief Nanna through his possessions. 


Chapter 2 will explore the material archive held at the Nanna Living History Museum and what this museum represents both for Chief Nanna as an individual and Itsekiri cultural heritage more broadly. Through a macro analysis of the building itself, as well as the individual exhibits within, this chapter provides an alternative narrative of Nanna that highlights his personal life and experience as a trader. Additionally, I examine the centenary celebrations in depth to explicate how certain parts of Chief Nanna’s biography are viewed as vital by Itsekiri elites. In doing so, I explore how the active memorialisation of Chief Nanna plays an important role in Itsekiri identity politics within the multi-ethnic landscape of Nigeria. 


Chapter 3 focuses on the collections at the National Maritime Museum and the British Museum and takes up the issue of restitution and the ongoing practice of Itsekiri cultural heritage being kept abroad, most often in storage and frequently mislabelled. I compare the two museums to show the difference between a museum with a smaller collection of Itsekiri heritage, of which the provenance of each object can be traced, and a museum with a large collection of objects. I also consider the ‘politics of display’ and what it means for the majority of Itsekiri cultural heritage held abroad to be kept in storage.

Taken as a whole, my research contributes to the understanding of this key figure in the local context of the Warri kingdom and within the wider discourses of early British imperial expansion in Nigeria. By expanding the scope of material relevant to Chief Nanna’s history to include the social and cultural value of Chief Nanna’s possessions, as well as his visual and material representations, we gain a different insight into his life as a family man and powerful trader. This dissertation will juxtapose narrative history and material culture, to better understand and contextualise Nanna as an historical figure by exploring his legacy through both history and objects. 

Copyright 2022 Allegra Ayida

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