The piper calls the tune at the ‘new’ Lamu Museum

Monday October 30 2023

A model dhow at Lamu Museum, Kenya. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


Visitors to the Lamu Museum, now open after a year-long refurbishment, will notice its makeover: A fresh coat of paint, rearranged displays and new installations.

The governments of Kenya and Oman are responsible for the new look.

The Lamu Museum is located in town centre, overlooking the seafront. The building became part of the National Museums of Kenya in 1971, having changed hands multiple times since it was built in the early 1900s.

The European-style two-storey pillared house with outer balconies was originally the residence of a high-ranking Omani Arab. In colonial times it was used by British administrators and served as the district commissioner's residence until 1968.

Read: Echoes from the past at the Takwa ruins in Lamu

Impressive carved Lamu doors with brass studs open into a cool foyer, where one wall is taken up by elaborate plasterwork around a niche, typical of traditionally affluent Swahili homes.


The galleries have a brighter, cleaner look, compared to what I saw from old photos.

A keener inspection, however, shows that a substantial part of the museum is now dedicated to reviewing Omani society, one of the historical legacies of Lamu.

Visitors will find digital pictures showing the Omani overthrow of the Portuguese settlers and their commercial prosperity in East Africa between the 17th to 19th centuries.

Other images show Omanis crafting traditional household goods, pottery and weaponry.

We find images of Omani horse-riding events and sword-dancing festivals.

There are displays of Omani cultural costumes for men and women. Glass cabinets contain antique rifles, ironware, Omani sabres, swords and shields.

Still more exhibit heavy ornate silver jewellery that adorned the limbs of wealthy women, and carved wooden sandals worn by the elite.

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We find the bedroom of an upper-class family home along with a reconstructed indoor bathroom and lavatory. There are interesting titbits, like the Omani seafarer who reportedly invented the navigation compass, Omani trading during the Neolithic age and the culture of dhow building.

One room has lovely examples of kitchenware from an 18th century Swahili home.

On display are local objects such as kikapu baskets, kifumbi leaf strainers, and grain grinding stones alongside a metal wood-burning water heater, an old-fashioned rice vermicelli squeezer, tall Arab-style coffee pots and brassware.

A chapter of Lamu’s Omani heritage that is entirely missing in the Museum is slavery. The commercial trade in human beings is a well-known aspect of Oman’s presence in East Africa.

The comfortable life of Lamu’s ruling elite so beautifully exhibited at the museum relied on enslaved domestic workers and commercial agriculture in East Africa, encouraged by the Omani sultanate, depended on slave labour.

In comparison, I am reminded of the East African slave trade exhibition at the Christ Church Anglican Cathedral of Zanzibar, built on the site of a former slave market. The exhibition has substantial writeups about human trade from the coast to the interior regions of East and Central Africa, albeit from a British missionary perspective.

Many foreign nations have a footprint in Lamu, but the museum seems to have diminished their stories.

The Portuguese dominated Lamu in the 16th century. In 1885, Germany established the Protectorate of Wituland in Lamu and Tana River. They were ousted in the 1890s by their colonial rival, Great Britain, which was embarking on an imperial conquest of East Africa.

Before the Europeans and Omanis, there were centuries of maritime interactions with merchants from India, Syria, Persia, the Roman Empire and Greece to name a few.

Pieces of Chinese porcelain on display point to older exchanges during the Maritime Silk Road era. In 2010, a joint China-Kenya initiative launched the search for a trading ship belonging to legendary Chinese explorer Xheng He. It sank near Lamu about 600 years ago, survivors of which settled and integrated into the local communities.

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Today’s Lamu Museum has minimal information about the indigenous Africans of the region. When I questioned our guide on his remark that, "Arabs were the first to arrive in Lamu," he admitted that the archipelago was long-known, visited and occupied by coastal peoples such as the Pokomo.
The Mijikenda, Kamba and other African communities participated in the thriving marine-inland interchange.

In the highly stratified society of Omani Lamu, lower-ranked communities would have lived in simpler dwellings on the outskirts of the stone town.
occupied by the ruling class. Much of the previous ethnographic collections at the Museum of the Boni, Sanye and Orma communities have become less visible.

On local artefacts, the origins of the present-day kanzu and bui bui garments are explained. A traditional fishing basket points to a mainstay livelihood still practised today. Snapshots and text briefly describe 15th century tombs and ruins in Lamu’s Ishakani and Dondo areas, little-known archaeological treasures that beg for more attention.

The curation of the refurbished Lamu Museum is not entirely surprising since, presumably, funding for the project came from the Omani partners. The Al Busaid ruling dynasty of Oman is descended from the same royal family that presided over the historic Omani Empire whose reach extended to the East African territories. There is great local pride in Oman’s legacy but, at the Lamu Museum, this has come at the expense of ethnic African and Swahili cultures.

The National Museums of Kenya has the mandate to “collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage, enhancing knowledge, appreciation, respect… for the benefit of Kenya.” At present there is a selective representation of history and culture at the Lamu Museum.

Globally, museums are re-evaluating how they depict culture, provenance and diversity. Some of the most significant heritage conversations going on in the world are around cultural representation and whitewashing of history. Note the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, banning of critical race theory in American schools and the recently failed Indigenous Voice referendum in Australia.

The National Museums may need to evaluate their role as ‘keepers of culture’, ensuring historical accuracy and presenting our past in its entirety, the noble and ignominious facts. Nevertheless, Lamu Museum is worth a visit as it is the most comprehensive cultural repository in the county.