Makeover at the National Museum

Last week I was lucky to get a preview of what the extended and refurbished Nairobi National Museum will be like when, in only a few weeks’ time, it is officially opened. But before going along to meet the Curator for a guided tour, I did some homework by looking at the website – and I cringed.

‘The climax of the change process has been a new corporate brand identity for NMK’, I read. ‘The new identity is meant to position NMK as the destination choice in the heritage tourism sector …..’ Let me stop there. Oh dear! Those phrases: ‘corporate brand identity’, ‘position NMK’, ‘destination choice’ – they are straight from the handbook of clichés for PR consultants.

I know that to attract visitors, to educate the public as well as to conserve the culture – and, whenever possible, to educate in an entertaining way – museums need to get away from the stuffy image that so many of us have carried in our heads after being traipsed as children round glass cases crammed with grey fossils, bits of pottery and stuffed birds. But, however bright and lively, a museum is still a museum and not something that needs a ‘brand identity’ like a store selling jeans or jelly-babies.

True, the Nairobi National Museum did need a makeover – to use another of the fashionable phrases. Just before I drove out to Museum Hill, I asked one of my young colleagues if she had ever visited the Museum.

‘Yes, when I was in secondary school,’ she said.

‘And what did you think of it?’

‘It was dull and boring!’

I retailed this little conversation to Simon Gatheru, the Principal Curator, as he was starting my guided tour.

‘That’s just what we found out in our public survey,’ he said. ‘And that’s the view we wanted to change.’

The change has been quite dramatic – as, in an ambitious project over the last seven years, the European Union has provided very significant financial and advisory support. The Flemish Development Cooperation has also assisted in the design and development of the new exhibitions.

Much more important than the cosmetics – the artistry of the new displays, the painted murals and the clever lighting – there has been a major perspective shift. Previously and understandably, given its colonial origins and interests, the Museum was Kenya through European eyes. It looked more to the past than to the present; it focused very much on wildlife and traditional artefacts.

Now, the new exhibitions take great care in linking the past with the present. The Cycles of Life gallery presents Kenyan communities as they experience the key events of birth, initiation, marriage and death, as they move through the phases of childhood, youth and adulthood. When, for example, there are exhibits of traditional baby carriers made of animal skins, alongside them there is a modern carrier made of fabric and plastic. You will also see modern school uniforms amongst the traditional dress of adolescents.

Another principle of the re-design is that visitors should be given the chance to interact directly with some of the objects on display. In fact, there will be one gallery focusing on this aspect – where you can, literally, enjoy the hands-on experience of stroking the lines of a sculpture or trying on a feathered headdress.

As you will be well aware, the Museum holds some very precious paleontological exhibits – finds made by the Leakeys and other archaeologists from Kenya that justify the naming of one of the galleries, Cradle of Mankind. One brave decision of the Museum is to display some of the actual hominid skulls – in a specially secured room and behind bullet-proof glass. Definitely not exhibits that you will be allowed to handle!

But the exhibition-in-progress that struck me most was the huge ‘tree’ of gourds that is the centrepiece of the Hall of Kenya – the first gallery you enter. The gourds come from almost every community of Kenya. They epitomise the ‘unity in diversity’ theme that is highlighted in so many of the displays. It is a theme, isn’t it, that Kenya needs now as never before?

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation