Rachida Ayari de Souza is the Director of Benin's Department of Cultural Heritage. Educated in sociology, she received further training in museology from the Ecole du Louvre and has completed numerous fellowships in French and U.S. museums. Since 1982 she has worked on the organization and promotion of the Beninois museums and contributed to the planning of several exhibits and catalogues. She spoke with Leslie Rainer and Francesca Piqué, who are leading the GCI's team that is conserving bas-reliefs from the collections of the Musée Historique at the Royal Palaces of Abomey.
Interviewer: Could you talk about the view of cultural heritage conservation in Benin, in comparison with the tradition of conservation in Europe and the Americas?
Rachida de Souza: Our view of cultural conservation is not simply material. To be sure, we carry out projects devoted to buildings and objects, within the limits of our resources. But there is an important second dimension—to preserve and maintain the cultural totality which includes dance, music, and ritual. All this is the foundation of our cultural heritage and nourishes it. This kind of preservation can confuse people. Though it is highly codified in its presentations, it is not archived in a written sense. It leaves no material trace. Nevertheless, we try to hold on to it because it ensures the functioning of certain cultural sites in Benin. We try, as much as possible, to link the conservation of material culture and the cultural life thriving in the heart of the communities.
This is a much greater task for us than for our European and U.S. colleagues who conserve inventoried and codified objects or cultural sites which are commonly what I would call neutral sites. There, conservators restore things by the established criteria of conservation and museum techniques. But here in Benin the museum object is not completely under our control. It is the object of our conservation efforts, but it also continues to be the property of the community. The ethical standards of museums will tell you that only the conservator should handle it. Here, however, the object is also regularly handled by one or another person of the community charged with sacralizing or desacralizing it after it is used. Hence there is multiple handling of the object, which raises complex problems of conservation, use, and preservation. If one sets the object off limits, it loses its function and dies. If it continues to have a function, then we are obliged to respect that function and the conditions it imposes upon us.
The GCI is collaborating with the Department of Cultural Heritage at the site of the Royal Palaces of Abomey—specifically on the conservation of bas-reliefs that were once part of King Glélé's official palace. Could you talk about the origins of the project?
The palaces constitute one of the most important cultural heritage sites of Benin. They have been, for a long time, a concern of the government and various official agencies charged with preserving our cultural heritage. The goal has been to gather funds to finance specific conservation projects, especially those devoted to preserving the bas-reliefs which constitute truly original elements of this site.
We knew that certain bas-reliefs were seriously threatened, and we wanted to take the first, highly urgent, preventive steps by dismounting and sheltering them. But this was not a completely ideal solution; the deterioration of these elements continued. It was at this point that we knocked on the door of the Getty Conservation Institute, which responded favorably to our request.
How would you describe the cultural significance of the reliefs?
The bas-relief, as a kind of pictogram, bears a message that narrates, in certain ways, historical events. It is also the bearer of particular cultural values. The bas-relief, in glorifying important royal victories or in presenting royal emblems, communicated, beyond linguistic differences, a visual message of power and prestige which the kings in Abomey wanted to implant in their own kingdom, among those they battled, with those whom they traded, or with those under their control.
What do you envision as the future of the bas-reliefs, once their conservation is complete?
Since there is an ongoing project to reorganize the collections and exhibitions at Abomey, we think the bas-reliefs will play a very important role in our exhibitions. We also hope that they will play a role as an archive for research. They constitute important historical records.
How would you try to attract interest in the palaces through these bas-reliefs? Is there a special plan that you see being implemented?
Currently our activities are limited to the palaces of the kings Guézo and Glélé, which cover almost five acres and house the Musée Historique d'Abomey. However, the royal palace site, as included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, covers nearly 109 acres and has potential we wish to develop. We should like, for example, to design a visitor itinerary throughout the site. This would provide a better understanding of the culture of the Fon kingdom. The idea is not only to restore the physical site but also to enhance understanding of it. This means mobilizing financial support, furthering research, and using new techniques.
So what the GCI is doing in collaboration with the Department of Cultural Heritage is just the tip of the iceberg?
Yes. We are now working on a policy of coordinated projects at the site. Presently we have ICCROM helping us with our collections. CRATerre-EAG is giving us technical support to develop and implement a maintenance plan. With the GCI project, we have undertaken together a very important historic task. For the first time we have acted upon architectural elements, giving them the attention they deserve. But we wish to go further, raising awareness of the museum and developing and promoting the entire site. The GCI gave us the starting signal to begin a project that could be developed over the coming years. We have only just begun the journey and would like to continue together in developing the site.
What part is the royal family playing in the site's development?
We consult with them regularly. There is an official entity called the Council of the Royal Families of Abomey. His Majesty, Agoli-Agbo, is the president of this council and its principal spokesman when it comes to certain decisions about the palace. We consider the royal families to be the traditional stewards of these locations. It is they who carry out the daily rituals and ceremonies at the palace. In one sense, we think of them as the first conservators of this heritage. We are the institutional conservators, the technicians who bring to bear our ethical concerns, but in terms of vision and philosophy of conservation and preservation of the site, the families play a very important role. The palace is, for them, a place of constant daily activity.
Why should we preserve our cultural heritage? Why is it important to know the past?
There's a famous proverb that says, "If you do not know where you are going, you should know at least where you come from." I think it is important to equip oneself with the values of one's culture and to share one's heritage with others. It's also important for future generations. At the museum we are trying to work with young people, introducing them to things that they do not always find at school. Knowledge isn't only acquired at school. There is also an orally transmitted knowledge which in our day is somewhat pushed aside by academic or "scientific" learning. We do not want to leave out that other dimension of knowledge and of cultural values found in art, such as the iconography of the bas-reliefs.
What sort of educational programs does the museum have for young people?
We have not fully established a policy to reach out to the schools. It is not that we do not have organized visits from the schools—we certainly do. But our program is neither systematically organized nor sufficiently focused.
We do, however, consider this very important, because the museum presents knowledge through aesthetic and oral tradition that complements schoolbook knowledge. Moreover, the museum offers a concrete manifestation of historical events through one or another object that allows students to understand better such things as the history of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The educational potential in Abomey is extensive. For us the bas-reliefs are an iconographic source essential for an understanding of the environment, but also for an appreciation of the arts, history, and anthropology. We are going to work more on our cultural program with the schools and try to get young people to come to the museum. But we must also think of how better to bring the museum to the schools.
What about the connection of this heritage to those beyond the borders of Benin. What meaning might the royal bas-reliefs of Abomey have to an American of African ancestry?
There is perhaps the recognition—what I would call the rediscovery—of a history which is not simply an articulated series of events as recorded academically in books but a history that continues to be lived out. In my opinion, this is what could strike an American. To put it another way, it is possible to feel this living connection and this constant reinterpretation of history that the individual draws from oral traditions—which is perhaps not felt in Europe or the Americas, where history is more commonly taught and accepted as simply the past. This questioning and reinterpretation of history is not simply part of oral tradition but owes much to our way of being and functioning within this culture.
What is the role of tourism in the national economy, in relation to the cultural heritage?
Cultural tourism in the national economy is not as developed as we would like, but it does exist. Many tourists who arrive from Togo tour Benin and visit various museums and monuments. The problem is that coordination with tourism is still very informal. We do not have a development plan because we do not have the funds to enhance the site. Tourism has not yet yielded money for restoration, development, or promotion of this kind of site.
We do approach tourism with a good deal of caution because there is a danger, over the long run, of fostering a kind of commercialism that could eventually disturb certain traditions. These sites are not simply material places and buildings but places of living tradition. We should not like to wind up with what I would call "ceremonies on demand." That kind of commissioned ceremony would risk destroying authenticity and the value of all such cultural expression.
Nevertheless, one could develop troupes of young people who revive traditional dances. There is also a group of young women who perform royal dances. We think that such groups could help make the museum in Abomey a cultural center that would attract a public with living cultural forms. All this requires help. We should like to create, as we have done in [the city of] Ouidah, an association of friends of the museum. Such an association could concentrate its efforts on stimulating such programs.
How much public support for conservation is there in Benin?
We have support within the immediately surrounding communities, to whom the cultural heritage belongs. At Abomey, for instance, within the community, we have a very high degree of awareness of the heritage. These communities carry on discussions with us; they participate in making decisions with us. Among the wider, national public, the notion of conservation is not clearly understood. Here we have the task of getting people to understand the idea of a national—not simply a local—heritage. That legacy belongs first to the community, but for palaces like those of Abomey, it is also national and international. Since the site is on the World Heritage List, it is the property of humanity.