Author: Clare A. Okidi (University of Nairobi)
Museums represent vital spaces for preserving, celebrating and sharing cultural and natural heritage of a people and their environment. Museums have transformed over the decades, from just being spaces to institutions that are crucial to the well-being of societies. In the African context, museums were spaces that held colonial narratives of who the African people were, and this skewed African history, art and their perceptions of who they were. In recent times African museums are making efforts to push for the African narrative, by the African people. This has seen museums make space for more representation and voices in varied ways be it physical or virtual. Being a member of the subgroup museum presented me with an opportunity to understand how museums as institutions tie into knowledge and well-being in societies. I chose to visit the Nairobi National Museum, which is easily accessible within the city of Nairobi.
The focus of my research was to explore the importance of representation in museums and progress being made towards reclaiming narratives and amplifying diversity at Nairobi National Museums.
Background of NNM Museum
The Nairobi National Museum was first established in 1910 as the East Africa National History Society (EANHS) and officially opened on 22 September 1930 as the “Corydon Museum”, in memory of Governor Sir Robert Coryndon. In 1964, after independence, it was renamed National Museum of Kenya with the aim of making it a site of Kenya’s National Heritage; nature, culture and history. In 2017, the museum underwent changes, which entailed extensive research before exhibits were reopened for public consumption, this was crucial as it acknowledged the impact of colonial legacies and the need to make room for a more comprehensive and authentic representation of the ‘ Kenyan people”. This would be by holding objects that tell the stories of the local communities accurately. Progress has also been made in creating platforms for dialogue and collaboration for the local community, scholars and general public. The “shujaa stories” which were conceptualised in 2019 to give life to African stories produced within the continent, is one such effort of the museum to collaborate with the public to make African history available to the public. The exhibition involves illustrations and stories of superheroes pre-independence and entails a travelling exhibition as well as a digital platform.
When visiting the museum for my field study, something I noted was that Nairobi National Museum itself is huge. There were several galleries representing nature, human evolution as well as history. I did not get to fully see all the galleries available, yet I had spent over two hours inside. Over the years, the museum has been expanding its exhibitions and displays, to try and align with its identity as an authentic, unifying and authoritative custodian of heritage. This has also allowed more space for the public to participate in and display their exhibits.
Diversity in exhibition
An essential feature of representation in museums is diversifying the exhibition and collections, this is important as it ensures moving beyond a singular narrative and exploring complexities and diversity within a people. During my visit to the Nairobi National Museum, I noticed that the first space I encountered tried to “speak” to the richness of diversity.
The space named, the ” Hall of Kenya ” holds a centrepiece display of a collection of gourds (calabashes) collected from each ethnic community in Kenya and put together in 2007. The calabashes regardless of size, shape, color or origin were glued together, symbolic of Kenya’s sense of identity, and the diverse ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation. Calabashes hold different meanings and significance in various communities within the country, for some it acts as a tool for storage and for others it acts as a way of serving a meal. It also holds other uses, one of which is spiritual. Assembling the calabashes into one artefact in no particular order was to be symbolic of the need to embrace diversity regardless of how large or small communities are.
In the words of Dr. Fredrick Manthi, ’Heritage should bring us together, as opposed to dividing us…’. The process of reclaiming diversity never really ends and in 2017, through a symbolic ceremony, the Kenyan Asian community, became recognized as the 44th tribe, and got to place their calabash in the collection, for them that was empowering, and brought about the sense of belonging.
As an institution, the museum equally plays a crucial role in educating its people about its history. History can never really be ignored and provides avenues to learn from and be better as a society. In the African societies, communities had ways of telling the younger members about their history and culture, be it through folklore, songs or stories, in modern society most no longer have an opportunity to learn from their elders. This brings more emphasis to the role of institutions that children occupy to ensure they still learn about history and culture. While moving through the various exhibition halls in the museum during my second visit, this need was reiterated through a conversation I had with one parent, in the Kenyan History Hall. The parent was his child’s museum guide and had been walking her through the various exhibitions at the Kenyan history hall, which is arranged in chronological order from precolonial, colonial and postcolonial Kenya. The space speaks to identify, from a cultural, social, political and economic point of view. It exhibits the migration to Kenya, the forging of communities, trade, colonialism and the Kenyan society that arose after. To him, the museum represented a space where he could show his child “their” history and origin, something that he felt was not fully taught or displayed as much in other institutions. He asked his child ‘Can you spot the first president of Kenya (President Jomo Kenyatta)?….no… “ He’s the one in the middle (pointing at the picture).
From others who I was able to interact with they equally described the space as being educative, impactful, worthwhile and a reminder. It was a space where they could see their history and the processes that made them who they are now.
The cycle of life gallery is the second exhibition I viewed, it was organized according to the different stages that made up the community’s life cycle. That is from birth, adolescence, through death and finally transition to ancestry. The exhibition showed cultural practices that defined certain communities, some of which over time stopped being practised.
Piercing of ears was a common practice in almost every Kenyan community, and the practice was done for different reasons. In nearly every community, both men and women pierced their ears, and it formed part of transition rituals, more so from childhood to youth. In other communities’ young warriors would pierce their ears further as a sign of bravery. In modern society, this very practice when done by men is viewed by many as a taboo, and ear stretching has become almost non-existent. Other practices over time have also evolved or stopped. A number of older people who I engaged with at this gallery felt that some of the practices we should hold on to and the decline should be a point of concern.
Representation at the Nairobi National Museum is still an ongoing journey that aims to reclaim narratives, and amplify diverse voices. The exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, at the museum are rooted in the ideologies of unity, nationalism and African heritage.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o “Identity is an ever-changing unity of differences and sameness, particularity and universality. Identity is the imagined container of multitudes.”
This blog is part of the Museum group.
In the course of the Decentering Epistemologies for Global Well-Being program, we (Clare Okidi based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Aminata Estelle Diouf based in Cologne, Germany) participated in the theme “Knowledge and Well-being” and formed the subgroup on the theme “museum.” We had many fruitful one-on-one discussions, where we discussed the role, that cultural museums played in our respective locations and cultural landscapes. For our fieldwork we both decided to visit museums that deal with cultural heritage, albeit each institution deals with the topic from a very different angle and with a very different perspectivity.
Clare went to the Nairobi National Museum, which was established in 1910 and is focused on the common history of the many different ethnic groups and cultural communities in Kenya reconnecting with the precolonial history and themes of national identity. Aminata visited the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum Cultures of the World, an ethnological museum in Cologne focused on non-European cultures. In recent years, the museum has been undergoing a critical transformative process in an effort to break with the way in which ethnological museums in Europe have been traditionally depicting world cultures and decentering Western epistemologies by enabling artistic/activist interventions within the museum space and by inviting marginalized cultural actors that do not typically take up space in these types of institutions.
What was interesting in our joint conversations was the realization that each of the museums was part of a larger opposing societal discourse. While the Nairobi National Museum was focused on fortifying the national identity and bringing together the different ethnic groups, the RJM museum, like many ethnological museums in Europe, has been at the forefront of discourses on marginalization, invisibility and exclusion of certain minoritarian groups within the dominant cultural landscapes of European countries. In our mutual reflection we realized that the museums should be playing similar roles to our societies but were in very different stages of that process: while the effort of the museum in Nairobi was to bring cohesion and inclusion to the communal divide that was once caused by colonialism, the museum in Cologne has become an important stage were minoritarian cultural actors were trying to have their own realities and perspectives acknowledged and self-representative perspectives included into the public spheres, breaking with the colonial narratives on their cultures and histories. In a way, both institutions were places that gave space to processes of heritage and healing, which could contribute to well-being.
About the author
Clare Okidi is Master’s student in Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, Kenya