Iconic National Archives’ rise from hosting banks to global research centre

By the time the East African Currency Board was established in 1919, the National Bank of India had already entrenched itself as the leading bank in Kenya, with several branches to its credit. The East African Protectorate was declared a colony in 1920 and soon thereafter the National Bank of India was appointed the official bank of the government.

In a move to assert its leading status, the National Bank of India designed an iconic building to house the bank’s head office in 1928. Completed in 1931, the building was situated on Government Road (current Moi Avenue) with a rear elevation to Victoria Street (current Tom Mboya Street) and a return frontage to Short Street, commanding a dominant presence in what was then the central business district of Nairobi.

Another magnificent example of the neo-classical style of architecture, popular at the time, the building comprises a ground floor, two upper floors and a basement.

Walls are constructed of smooth rendered and painted stone with beautiful Greco-Roman columns to three facades, beneath a Mangalore tiled roof supported by concealed timber arches. A parapet wall was added all round the roof area during recent remodelling.

There is an open plan area on the ground floor featuring tastefully coloured fluted columns rising to a moulded ceiling with high level lighting and ventilation.

The main entrance is graced by a Lamu styled timber door while other doors are made of panelled timber.
Windows are glazed in large steel casements providing ample natural lighting.

Floors are finished in a variation of parquet, ceramic tiles, terrazzo and granite. This was one of the few buildings, at the time, to be equipped with an elevator (sadly out of commission now). The building is in a fair state of repair and decoration.

In 1948, the National Bank of India bought Grindlays Bank which was operating predominantly in India but the two banks traded separately until 1958 when they merged into the National and Grindlays Bank. This bank was then acquired by the government to give rise to the Kenya Commercial Bank in 1970.

The management of archives during the colonial period was haphazard at best. A fire on Victoria Street in 1905 destroyed some government records as did another in 1939 on the hill area at the site currently occupied by the Prisons Service headquarters. Despite these calamities no serious effort was made to promulgate an effective archival management system.

In one incident, Kitui District Commissioner wrote to the Provincial Commissioner, Central Province, on June 8, 1948, asking for permission to use earlier files for rough work due to a shortage of paper, adding that he would salvage file covers and fasteners for future use!

It was not until 1965 that the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Services (KNADS) was established by a substantive Act of Parliament, and placed under the Office of the Vice-President and Minister for Home Affairs.

The depository of archives was initially situated in two rooms in Jogoo House “A” on Harambee Avenue, belonging to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

With time and as the number of researchers and records grew, these facilities became inadequate. The matter was brought to the attention of the Public Archives Advisory Council which was then chaired by the late Humprey Slade, who negotiated for a lease in Rahimtulla Trust Building on Mfangano Street. The building was formally handed over on February 25, 1970 resulting in improved services for storage and research.

Kenya’s second vice-president Joseph Murumbi was a keen art collector. In 1972, he co-founded Africa’s first Pan African Gallery, African Heritage, in Nairobi, with his wife Sheila and Alan Donovan.

Invaluable troves of knowledge

As one of Africa’s foremost collectors, the late Murumbi amassed and bequeathed to the world invaluable troves of knowledge, records and information that have continued to attract readership from all corners of the globe. The Murumbi Collection comprises papers and manuscripts, African collection of books and publications, and the Joseph and Sheila Murumbi Pan-African Stamp Collection.

Between 1976 and 1977, the government purchased most of the Murumbi Collection which was thereafter held by KNADS as trustees on behalf of the people of Kenya. In July, 1977, Dr Maina D Kagombe, the then director and chief archivist at KNADS, prepared a short paper titled “Kenya National Art Gallery: A proposal by KNADS for Conversion of Kenya Commercial Bank Building on Government Road”.

The proposal was approved by the Cabinet and the government purchased the building, handing it over to KNADS in 1978.

By this time Kenya Commercial Bank had already built its own headquarters — Kencom House — on City Hall Way. The transaction must have been a welcome boost to the bank’s liquidity.

Remodelling commenced immediately under the supervision of Reynold Arnould, a consultant provided by the French government under a bilateral cultural agreement. The consultant was so impressed with the composition of KNADS activities that he immediately recommended the centre be referred to as the “Kenya Cultural Archives and National Gallery”.

The Murumbi Collection was moved to the National Archives in 1981. Unfortunately there were some inordinate delays in the remodelling and the first public exhibition was not held until January, 1982.

In addition to the Murumbi Collection, today the National Archives holds in excess of 3.6 million records consisting of government correspondence files, reports, publications, manuscripts and private collections. Many of these records have recently been digitised. The KNADS is now under the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts.

Since 2004, Murumbi Trust chairman Alan Donovan has been assisting in improving the display of the Murumbi Collection. Part of the collection was moved to the Nairobi Gallery in 2013.

In June 2014, Philips installed special LED lighting for the building which creates a very unique lightshow at night, making the building appear to glow and radiate warmth.

This majestic building was an excellent choice as a repository of our national heritage. It is gazetted as a national monument.
The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast.
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