Smithsonian Fellowship Allows UA Little Rock Professor to Highlight Architecture of Royal Palace of Dahomey

Lynne Larsen

A UA Little Rock professor has received a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship to conduct research on royal architecture in the former kingdom of Dahomey, now the Republic of Benin, in Africa.

Dr. Lynne Larsen, assistant professor of art history, has spent the spring semester in Washington D.C. conducting research for an upcoming book analyzing the architecture of the Royal Palace of Dahomey in Abomey, Benin.

“The royal palace is a fascinating site,” Larsen said. “I explore its early history as an ever-changing home for the kings of Dahomey to its transformations during the French colonial and post-colonial periods. The palace has functioned as a place for religious ceremonies, a center for political struggle, and a cultural museum. It now serves as an important symbol of non-European identity for the Republic of Benin.”

The book, “Reconstructing Identity through Dahomey’s Royal Architecture,” examines the palace’s relationship to the religious, cultural, and national identity of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Dahomey (c. 1625-1892), colonial Dahomey (1892-1960), and post-colonial Dahomey/Benin (1960-present).

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Dahomey’s royal palace was the center of rule for its pre-colonial kings beginning in the 17th century.

“It became a colonial administration center and museum under France’s rule, and remains a museum and important cultural site since independence in 1960,” Larsen said. “As an earthen complex, the palace has been in constant flux of deterioration and restoration. This book demonstrates how architecture can function to shape and be shaped by colonial, post-colonial, and religious forces.”

Larsen holds a longtime love and fascination for the royal palace. It was the subject of her dissertation, “The Royal Palace of Dahomey: Symbol of a Transforming Nation,” when she earned her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Iowa in 2014.

“We’re all very proud of what Dr. Larsen has achieved and are looking forward to the outcomes of her scholarly activities,” said Tom Clifton, chair of the Department of Art and Design. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of these groundbreaking fellowships as we move forward.”

As part of the fellowship, Larsen conducted research for her book in the archives of several Smithsonian institutions, including the National Museum of African Art, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the Human Studies Film Archives.

“I have been exploring the visual documentation of the palace held in the National Museum of African Art’s archives, which offers insights into the palace’s changing form and roles throughout its tumultuous history,” Larsen said. “I’m writing about a mud palace that’s existed for hundreds of years. Over the years, it’s been washed away and rebuilt many times. It’s difficult to know how it looked in certain periods of time, but these archives are helping me piece together that history.”

The fellowship also covered travel for a two-week research trip in March to study the royal palace in person in Benin. Larsen’s upcoming book will be published by Routledge Press and is expected to be released in 2023.

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