The National Museum: A House of Culture

I asked a few of my young colleagues how they spent their Christmas holidays when they were children – that is, if their families didn’t go up-country or to the Coast but stayed in Nairobi.

Their stories didn’t sound much fun: spending the morning in church (wearing their new clothes bought for Christmas) and in the afternoon meeting with relatives and eating chicken or, if they were lucky, a goat. One of them mentioned a trip to the Nairobi National Museum. And that made me think that it was about time I paid another visit there – because, apart from spending Christmas and Boxing Days with the animals in the Meru National Park, I too was left behind in Nairobi.

So, on the Saturday morning before Christmas, I went.

I saw changes. Good ones. It is not like the museums in England I remember being taken to as a child – with cream-walled rooms full of glass cases showing all manner of old things, but particularly bones and fossils. Mind you, there are some bones in the Nairobi Museum, or replicas of them – but famous old bones that tell the story of our origins and our evolution.

The story of the Nairobi National Museum is itself a story of evolution. It is much more than a number of rooms with glass cases filled with old artefacts and walls lined with historic photographs. Yes, those things are there – and they are very well displayed and described. In the spacious entrance Hall of Kenya, there are some fascinating and historic artefacts – a Swahili siwa ceremonial horn from the 1680s, for example, and a sambu, a Kalenjin elder’s cloak made from the skins of Sykes’ monkeys.

Up the stairs, the Cycles of Life exhibition tells the life stories of a number of ethnic groups, from childhood through to adulthood and beyond to ‘ancestor-hood’ – with displays of traditional birthing methods, child rearing techniques, circumcision and initiation rituals, grave markers and burial artefacts to help someone into the after-life.

However, the museum clearly understands culture as about behaviours and institutions of the present as well as of the past. And so there are the galleries with temporary exhibitions of contemporary paintings and sculptures. The History of Kenya exhibition is not shy about pointing out the current effects of historical decisions. This is its comment on land distribution at the time of independence: ‘Huge tracts of land were often transferred to prominent Kenyan citizens, thus promoting wealth inequality in post-independence Kenya. The pattern did not change during the KANU regime. Land ownership in Kenya remains a sensitive issue’.

Nothing shows better how alive the museum is to present happenings than the current Central Bank of Kenya exhibition. There is an intriguing display of coins and banknotes of both pre- and post-independence. And, of course, there is a celebration of Mpesa, the mobile money system, which is called ‘the great Kenyan transformation’.

One of the older treasures of the museum is its comprehensive collection of birds preserved by taxidermy. There is now an exhibition of fish and fishing. Perhaps that is what made me choose a tilapia fillet for lunch at the pleasant Vogue Café – before buying my last-minute Christmas presents at the well-stocked museum shop.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation