Exhibiting Kenya’s ‘invisible’ artefacts



  • Invisible inventories’ is an ingenious idea which ironically one can actually see until May 2.
  • A work in progress which ultimately will amount to one gigantic digital database, the project is a collaborative effort.

Invisible inventories’ is an ingenious idea which ironically one can actually see until May 2.

A work in progress which ultimately will amount to one gigantic digital database, the project is a collaborative effort between the International Inventories Programme, The Nest and Shift Collectives, National Museums of Kenya, Weltkulturen Museum of Frankfurt am Main, and Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum of Cologne.

The ultimate goal, after assembling all the information about what elements of Kenyans’ culture are located in which museums, cultural centres, or private collections abroad, is ideally the repatriation of all the material culture, art and artifacts removed during colonial times.

Not that the organisers of the project have called explicitly for repatriation, meaning the return of all those items to the communities from which they were removed. The initial request is simply for information.

But already, IIP has discovered that at least 32,321 items removed from Kenya are situated in 30 museums and counting. Among them are the British Museum In UK, Weltkultures Museum in Germany and Field Museum of Natural History in USA.

Nonetheless, one has to ask, how can you exhibit an ‘invisible’ inventory? That is where one must marvel at the curators who have created a lively, engaging, and multi-media set of installations that fill the immense exhibition hall which is part of the Creativity Gallery.

One section of the hall is partitioned off and called the ‘Display of Absence’. In it there are two series of empty transparent cases. Well-lit to amplify the absence of indigenous cultural objects that should have been displayed but for this country’s colonial past when cultural objects were removed – often by force and without being asked. Above each case is an illustration of what might have been in the case, possibly a shield, ornamentation, or weapon of war, who knows?

On the other side of the partition, on the walls are banners revealing the identities of several individuals who would actually know what items could have filled those empty cases. They include William and Katherine Routledge, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, and Louis Seymour Leakey, among others. The attention to historical detail is impressive and well-researched as each banner identifies how many items those mentioned took out of colonial Kenya without a qualm.

The big ‘winner’ was Louis Leakey, which is a surprise since he is so closely associated with the Museums of Kenya, one might think all the indigenous items he found he would have left behind in appreciation of his affinity for Kenya. But no, according to the curators, Leakey actually lifted no less that 6,679 items and left them either at the British Museum or the Pit Rivers Museum in Oxford.

But the shocker of the show is the banner revealing Col. Meinertzhagen’s brutal treatment of the Nandi Chief Koitalel arap Samoel whose head he took home as a kind of trophy for his apparent conquest of the region.

Understandably, the Nandis want their chief’s head returned so the man can rest in peace. But thus far, that hasn’t been achieved.

The IIP initiative continues nonetheless as is apparent in the exhibition with the so-called ‘Topography of Loss’ designed as a large rectangular mapping of a futuristic exhibition which one day might contain all sorts of items retrieved from overseas museums, be they in England, Belgium, Germany or the States.

For instance, one set of items sought by Kenyans are the skins of the so-called man-eating lions of Tsavo. However, those skins were taken to the US and sold to the Field Museum of Natural History where they seem to be in permanent residence.

Sale of African artifacts further complicates the ownership issue of repatriation. But as The Nest collective wrote in the show’s catalog, ownership seemed to be an obsession of the coloniser as it evidenced conquest and dominance.

The lions are given a whole commemorative ‘hut’ at the exhibition. You step inside and find innumerable lion symbols meant apparently to illustrate an image of power, strength, and Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’.

The creators of Invisible Inventories have made charts of materials extracted, be they bronze, copper, animal skin, organic fiber, beads or semi-precious stones.