Kenya museums to soon go virtual

Monday June 05 2017
NMK sculptors

Sculptures of the human revolution at the National Museum of Kenya. PHOTO| FILE

Kenya’s rich heritage that goes back more than three million years will soon be accessible online, as the country plans to create a virtual museum.

The new approach—that is only found in South Africa on the continent —means that one does not need to physically go to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the chief heritage custodial, to sample the country's archaeological and paleontological collections.

It is also meant to attract more researchers and tourists, as well as inspire interest on Kenyan archaeological and cultural collections among East Africans.

Three American data service companies namely Digital Divide Data (DDD), Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Intel have joined forces to digitise the world renowned archaeology and palaeontology collections held by NMK.

These include 2.5-million years of humankind’s paleontology cultural evolution and millions of fossils dating back to the Oligocene era from 2.3million to 33 million years ago.

The three partners have signed an 18-month contract with NMK to put the county’s collection on Cloud, which will involve 3D scanning of the 10,000 artefacts that will be carefully selected by NKM staff.


Easier access

In an interview with The EastAfrican, DDD President, Frank Heitmann, who was in Kenya to follow up on the project said that the NMK collection will be put on the world map for easier access, and is bound to generate demand as has been witnessed in Europe and North America where this technology is more deployed.

“The major thing we are bringing to the table is technological transfers, training 20 NMK research assistants and 30 students in various colleges on how to use this technology,” said Mr Heitmann.


Frank Heitmann, president of Digital Divide Data addresses media in Nairobi on May 31, 2017. The company has joined forces with Amazon Web Services and Intel to digitise the world renowned archaeology and palaeontology collections held by the National Museums of Kenya. PHOTO| ANTHONY OMUYA

The first phase of the project will involve digitising culturally and scientifically significant artefacts and fossil specimens and creating a digital archives platform as well as an interactive website (virtual museum). The platform will be hosted on AWS cloud. 

The entire project involves three main components: Defining the ontologies for the collections, building the database and training personnel to enter information, and digitising and building the virtual museum website.

Since 1910, natural history collections have been housed in the facility that is now called the NMK.

Archaeological and paleontological work in numerous sites in Kenya starting in the 1930s has yielded important records of our human origins.


The collection includes six million years of humankind’s history and 3.3 million years of cultural evolution. The fossils date back to the Oligocene era and include some of the best-preserved hominid specimens.

Among the key attractions will be the 1.6-million-year-old fossil, named Nariokotome Boy, commonly known as Turkana Boy, which was found in 1984 by Kamoya Kimeu, who was part of a group of archaeologists led by Dr Richard Leakey.

Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, the head of Earth Sciences Department said that most museums across the world are moving towards digitalisation and that NMK expects to complete the process by the end of 2018. 

“Over time, our goal is to expand coverage to include key collections from all other research departments at the NMK as well cultural heritage collections from the more than 20 museums under the National Museums of Kenya organisation,” said Dr Manthi. 

Dr Manthi said that the project will cost millions of Kenya shillings, which the partners are not willing to divulge at this stage.