|Article by Ogova Ondego and Shiko Wang’ombe
Published December 5, 2006
The Nairobi Museum, that has been closed for 21 months during reconstruction, is set for reopening in July 2007, OGOVA ONDEGO and SHIKO WANG’OMBE report.
Funded by the European Union to the tune of eight million Euros, the project has been on since October 2005 when the 96-year Nairobi Museum was closed for expansion. It is expected that the reconstruction will make this house of culture and heritage more than a pass time venue for curious primary school pupils and tourists.
Besides the physical facelift, it is expected that the new museum will break away from its elitist British colonial model in preference for a modern African approach that would readily connect with the masses to conduct their businesses, ranging from dating to movie-watching, and from exhibitions to concerts and other socio-cultural activities without having to leave the premises.
The functions of a museum, experts say, determine its popularity. If it has well defined social roles as an educational or informational centre, or community work, it is likely to appeal to the community in which it is set up.
Museums should not just be about ancient artifacts or snakes. To be relevant, it should address contemporary issues. It should be interactive through the use of information communications technology besides addressing intangible cultural heritage to steer clear of the museum the colonialists built for themselves in central Nairobi in 1910 before relocating it to its current site on Museum Hill 19 years later.
Originally known as Coryndon Museum in honour of a colonial governor, Sir Robert Coryndon, it was renamed the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in 1964 after Kenya became a republic but without much change to its programmes and modus operandi.
This Museum is said to house the largest botanical collection in tropical Africa, more than two million insect specimens, two thousand bird specimens, fifty thousand ethnographic objects, and a snake park and an aquarium.
Ali Chege, head of public relations at NMK, says the expansion of the Nairobi Museum will add 2000 square metres of exhibition space. “The museum will have more exits to allow a continuous flow in the movements of people from one gallery to another rather than having dead ends as is currently the case.”
Dr Farah Idle, the Director General of the NMK, says Nairobi Museum will have interactive devices to assist visitors to understand the significance of the objects on show and how they works.
Currently, three teams are working on permanent Kenyan exhibitions: cultural heritage, natural history, and human evolution.
However the human evolution one has generated controversy with evangelical Christians in Kenya insisting it should not be exhibited prominently as it invalidates the Christian faith in creation.
Bishop Bonifes E Adoyo of Christ Is the Answer Ministries says that evolution should not be called scientific because it has failed scientific evidence. “The failure of carbon dating research, radio active dating and the molecular test are all inaccurate. A human being’s DNA cannot be transferred to primates and vice versa. It is science that is evolving,” Adoyo says, calling upon Kenyans–most of whom are said to be adherents to Christianity–to s said. He adds that the church, being the custodian of the truth in society, should always speak out whenever falsehoods and contradiction appear to challenge the established order.
Ali Chege, head of public relations at NMK, says religious beliefs should be respected. He says evolution of man is a theory that is still being researched on.
NMK says “The new human origins exhibition will present evidence that differences between human races are only skin deep–we are all equal. The fossils tend to unite man by making people of all races equal irrespective of their colour.”
In its information booklet, one of NMK’s mandates is to identify, protect, conserve and transmit the cultural and the natural heritage of Kenya. If NMK goes ahead to prominently display the so-called human fossils–including hominids like the so-called world-famous “Turkana boy”–then it will not be living up to this manadate: it will be contradicting the beliefs of Kenyans of most Kenyans.
Should the Heritage Bill 2006 be passed into law by parliament, it will enable the NMK to protect Kenya’s cultural heritage and even call for the repatriation of some of the country’s artifacts which were taken out of the country illegally. NMK has a network of regional museums, sites and monuments across the country.
Also being updated is the documentation process at the museum.
The publication–in English, French and Arabic–that has served for a decade as an important instrument for management, professional exchange and the fight against illicit traffic of cultural property in Africa, was produced by museums in Tunisia, Congo-Kinshasa, Mali, Namibia, Madagascar and Kenya.
By encouraging museums to update their inventories, the Handbook of Standards for the documentation of museum collections in Africa fulfills the common mission to implement standard professional practices and responds to a major concern of the organization: the fight against illicit traffic of cultural property.
Its translation into Portuguese is viewed as an important step that helps to integrate five African countries into the big network of Museums in Africa.
With the fight against illicit traffic of cultural property and looting being a major problem in Africa, Paula Assunção dos Santos said in Nairobi, the inventory of museum collections is an indispensable basis for all action in this field. “One can only implement policies and bring efficient resources into play to fight against illicit traffic if regional and international cooperation networks are set up,” she says, adding, “Present national boundaries inherited from recent history do not support the geographical extension of cultural areas. The possibility of exchanging information on museum collections and their documentation is therefore absolutely vital for the development of museums in Africa. This information sharing should also include African museums outside Africa, in which part of the African heritage is preserved.”
Some of the factors identified as causes of the deterioration and disappearance of objects from the cultural heritage of Afica and inhibiting the development of most museums in Africa are lack of inventories, temporary exhibitions, activities related to research and collecting as well as documenting.
The handbook of Standards covers all types of collections: humanities (history, archaeology, ethnography, art) as well as natural history (paleontology, zoology, geology, etc.). However, due to the composition of the group of pilot museums which elaborated the handbook, the humanities are covered more thoroughly.
Museums catalogue their collections in order to manage, conserve and exploit them.