Many Kenyans have only been to one museum in their lifetime, usually the Nairobi National Museum, with most visits being purely academic, not for enjoyment. To change that perception and promote the museum as an interesting and fun place to visit, the National Museums Of Kenya, the authority in charge of Kenyan monuments, posted an interesting challenge via social media: How many museums, sites and monuments can you visit in one day? This was done to commemorate the International Day of Monuments and Sites, when entry fees for Kenyan citizens to all museums and monuments were waived, including guided tours where available. As a result, some of Kenya’s most famous attractions would be free to enter on the 18th of April. The challenge had been made. Would it be possible to visit all the museums in Nairobi to take advantage of the offer of free entry?
After careful planning, some of my friends and I came up with a strategy to see as many of the attractions as we could. We started with The Nairobi National Museum, located on Museum Hill, which contains an extensive collection of artefacts with cultural and historical significance. Among them are the fossils found by various archaeologists, as well as traditional tools, musical instruments and weapons used by various Kenyan communities.
Additionally, the museum houses several exhibitions, one of which was a temporary collection of artwork done by Kenyan schoolchildren in conjunction with their counterparts in Poland. In addition to the ‘History of Kenya’ Exhibit, the National Museum is also showcasing a selection of historical photographs as part of the ongoing Kenya@50 celebrations. Many of the museum’s attractions were familiar to me, as I had been there severally as a child, but seeing them again after so long evoked a strong sense of nostalgia.
While we were at the National Museum, we noticed a larger than average crowd of visitors, because the day was a public holiday, and the free entry offer had received much publicity. Additionally, many of the school children who are the museum’s most frequent visitors were on holiday, and so it was a good time for a family day out. After going through the Museum, we visited the adjacent Snake Park, which also had crowds of visitors peering at the animals on display. The Park has a varied collection of reptiles, with various species of crocodiles, snakes, turtles and tortoises in the enclosures. In addition, the Aquarium Wing also has a wide range of fish that are endemic to Kenya.
From the National Museum, we went on to the Nairobi Gallery, which is located in the refurbished former Provincial Commissioner’s office at the edge of Nairobi’s City Centre. Since June 2013, the Gallery has been home to the Murumbi Collection, and it was a sight to behold. Containing displays of African art that were collected by Joseph Murumbi, the one time foreign minister and vice president of Kenya, the collection is diverse, ranging from gold and silver artefacts to mud cloth and beads from various African countries. The display also showcased some of the honours that were conferred to Mr. Murumbi, such as the Humane Order of African Redemption from Liberia and the Order of the Star of Ethiopia, in recognition of his contributions to African unity. Also on display were facsimile copies of Murumbi’s stamp collection, which was reputed to be the second largest in the world. One of the rooms at the Gallery contained a tribute to Murumbi the man, with a recreation of his living room showing pictures of him and his wife, some of the music he loved and also some of the letters he wrote.
Displayed alongside the Murumbi Collection were artworks by African artists, such as painter Jak Katarikawe and sculptor Magdalene Odundo. These works combine to give the Gallery a thoroughly African feel, with artwork from all over the continent on display. Alongside the art were everyday items of cultural significance, such as the head rest used by the Karamojong of Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya, as well as musical instruments such as the thumb piano known as the mbira and African lyres. The guided tour also included a documentary on Joseph Murumbi, showcasing the work he did with Alan Donovan to set up the African Heritage Gallery. The short time we had at the Gallery did not do the collection justice, because there was so much to see, but so little time!
After a short break, we set off for our next destination, the Railway Museum. Located near the Nairobi Railway Station, this museum was not one of those offering free entry, but we paid the KES 100 (US$ 1.20) entrance fee. The museum is managed by the Railway Corporation, and contains locomotive engines that belonged to the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Inside the museum are various relics from the heyday of rail travel in East Africa, such as signal lamps, a morse code machine, and scale models of the trains and ships that the Corporation owned and ran before the breakup of the East African Community.
The museum also has a train attachment called a pilot, a special attachments at the front of a train that removes any obstacles that may be on the tracks to allow the train safe passage. This particular pilot on display was the one used by Theodore Roosevelt during his tour of Kenya in 1909, and offered a seating platform from where he could hunt.
The museum is in dire need of maintenance, with the locomotives outside showing a significant amount of wear and tear. Similarly, the displays could also use some arrangement, and a guide to explain some of the more intricate displays would also help.
With 2 hours left until the advertised closing time, we left the City Centre and set off to the Karen Blixen Museum. Located on a 20 acre estate in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, the museum was established as Kenya’s first house museum in 1986, in what had been Karen Blixen’s house. Coincidentally, the day before our visit would have been Karen Blixen’s 129th birthday, and the Museum staff had decorated the house with balloons and streamers to mark the occasion. The house was used as the set for the film ‘Out of Africa’, which was based on the book by Karen Blixen with the same name. The house and the land on which it were home to Baron Bror and Karen Blixen, who had established a 6,000 acre coffee farm in 1914. The museum chronicles Karen’s time in Kenya, and the struggle she underwent over the the seventeen years when she made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa.
The various rooms in the house have been set up to mimic what they might have looked during Karen’s time, with original furnishings and fittings. This includes the mahogany panelling on the walls, and the coffee grinders in the kitchen. In recognition of Karen Blixen’s literary prowess, the Museum has several of her books on display, along with translations of ‘Out of Africa’.
The overall tour took nine hours, and five sites were visited in total. While the free entry was a potent motivator, the entry fees to the various sites are actually quite low. It is therefore possible to visit all the sites and monuments in Nairobi within a day in order to fully appreciate the sheer depth of historical knowledge these places contain. The guides available at the National Gallery and the Karen Blixen Museum literally brought history to life through the back stories of the exhibits, answering all sorts of random questions in the process. All this stoked my sense of wonderment at the amount of history on show. Perhaps the next step should be a museum tour to various towns in Kenya, in what will undoubtedly be an educational and fun way to travel and learn a lot about the history of Kenya.