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Drawing from the archives: notes on the old residency in Calabar, Nigeria

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The National Museum in Calabar, Nigeria is housed in a well-preserved British colonial structure known as the Government House or Old Residency. Built in 1884, the building was prefabricated by the iron manufacturer W. MacFarlane & Co. Ltd. in Glasgow, Scotland and shipped in parts to Calabar for construction in the area known as Government Hill. Extensive scholarship has focused on Calabar however the city’s architecture has been less closely analyzed. The few publications which address the city’s urban and architectural heritage often discuss the Old Residency in isolation and without the support of primary source evidence. The aim of this article is to critically examine the building and properly situate it in its historical context. With the aid of primary source documents housed in a number of archives, photographs taken at the site, drawings of the building and city, as well as insights from secondary sources, the objective of this study is to document, help visualize, and clarify the historical record about this important architectural artifact. While the building is often described in stately and heroic terms, it is best understood as an architectural experiment which failed to achieve its original aims but has nonetheless become an important site of heritage preservation in postcolonial Nigeria. Ultimately, this article argues the Old Residency is a record not of foreign architectural eminence, unchecked imperial penetration, or the spread of modern technological progress, but a contested site and register of competing and contradictory claims of the city’s past.


colonial urbanism, architecture, prefabrication, archives, history, Calabar, Nigeri