A comprehensive review of misappropriated Kenyan objects of art is on display at the Invisible Inventories exhibition in the Nairobi National Museum. The exhibition comes after a two-year collaborative study of the International Inventories Programme (IIP) to investigate a body of cultural items held in institutions across the globe.
The IIP is a partnership of the National Museums of Kenya, Goethe-Institut, the Nest (Nairobi), the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt.
Walking through the exhibition, I immediately noticed several empty stands, a visual testament to the missing items. The lost works include ceremonial instruments, shields, smoking pipes, jewellery, carvings and more. Though housed abroad, not all the missing items are not all viewable. At the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, 82 out of 83 Kenyan pieces have not been publicly displayed.
Covering two walls of the exhibition were printouts of thousands of bar codes representing the missing objects, emphasising the sheer number of items pilfered from Kenya in colonial times. The artefacts were collected or forcefully misappropriated by a variety of European characters including explorers, missionaries and military men.
Koitalel arap Samoei scalp
The exhibition mostly focuses on German museums but also reviews works in other countries such as the remains of “The maneaters of Tsavo” in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
The two mane-less lions terrorised labourers building the Uganda Railway in 1898, temporarily halting the construction work.
The ivory-inlaid Kiti cha Enzi (throne) of the Sultanate of Witu in coastal Kenya was stolen in 1890 during a British military expedition. From a gruesome incident, the personal items and decapitated head of the Nandi leader, Koitalel arap Samoei, were sent to London after his assassination in 1905 by colonel Richard Meinertzhagen.
From a more recent period, a kanga produced in 1971 in commemoration of the 8th anniversary of Kenya’s independence is part of a collection at the Weltkulturen Museum.
As part of the IIP study, a digital database was created of over 32,000 objects that can be accessed by the public. It remains to be seen whether any or all these will ever be repatriated. African countries, in general, have not been very successful in this quest.
This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on April 10, 2021.