Crown for largest heritage museum should be Kenya’s

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA. PHOTO | COURTESY
The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Upon his retirement in 1909 as the 26th President of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a year-long hunting expedition in East Africa, largely sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. As he left Mombasa later that year, it is said he took with him 11,400 specimens of animals, insects, birds and plants for display at the Smithsonian Institution and other museums in America.

The Smithsonian Institution is “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex.” It was founded in 1846, from the proceeds of a will left by James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist.

James Smithson was the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, born secretly in Paris at an unknown date in 1765. He was educated and eventually naturalised in England. He never visited America.

Smithson’s wealth arose from splitting of his mother’s estate with his half-brother, Colonel Louis Dickenson. In his will, Smithson left his fortune to the son of his half-brother, that is his nephew, Henry James Dickenson.

In the will, written in 1826, Smithson stated that Henry James Dickenson or Dickensons’ children would receive his inheritance and that if his nephew lived and had no children to receive the fortune, it would be donated “to the United States of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”. James Smithson never married nor had any children and he died on 29 June 1829.

However, it was not until 1835, when his nephew died similarly without children or heirs, that the US govermnent was informed about the bequest. President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the gift in 1836, which was accepted. In 1838, Smithson’s legacy of more than $500,000, in gold mint, was delivered to the US Treasury.

Today the Smithsonian Institute boasts a total of 19 museums and galleries spread across several locations in the United States.

During a recent visit to the Earth Sciences Department of the Nairobi Museum, I was informed that quite a large number of the fossilized remains on display are moulded copies, many originals of which are in the custody of the Smithsonian Institute and other museums in Europe.

In a recent article, I alluded to the rapid disappearance from Kenya in the 1970s and 80s of elaborately carved doors and windows of old coral Swahili houses, beds and other furniture, jewelry and porcelain, which were ending up in museums and wealthy peoples homes in Europe and America. It took the intervention of a passionate museum curator to stem the practice.

Often I have pointed out incidents of land grabbing involving national monuments and sites in various locations within our borders. Only this week, we have witnessed precious indigenous trees being ruthlessly cut down to give way to massive advertising billboards within the boundaries of City Park, a gazetted national monument.

This is unwarranted destruction of our heritage and environment, demonstrating the highest level of impunity. These trees are hundreds of years old and together with those in the nearby Karura Forest provide a valuable carbon sink for the City of Nairobi. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as it would take another one hundred years to replace the trees in their mature state.

There is existing legislation governing the erection of billboards but it is clearly not being observed or enforced. We have seen many other billboards placed in unsuitable locations where they interfere with the environment, some posing a danger to road users while others block access to light for residential and commercial premises. The law needs to be tightened and stiffer penalties imposed on those who breach the rules.

Legislation aside, it is inconceivable that we are cutting down trees in the middle of a prolonged drought in the country. Trees play a vital role in the creation of rainfall. Instead of cutting down trees, we should be deliberately planting new ones.

It has been stated, often enough, that Kenya is considered the cradle of humankind. The crown for the largest heritage museum should surely be ours to claim.