Discover the Museums in Kenya
Brief Overview of Museums in Kenya
A “museum”, as defined by the Constitution of Kenya, means a public or private institution which collects, preserves, and exhibit objects of cultural and natural heritage. The Museums Act consolidates the law relating to National Museums to provide for the establishment, control, management and the development of museums and the identification, protection, conservation and transmission of the cultural and natural heritage of Kenya. The National Museums of Kenya is a multi-disciplinary institution whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage. This was set up for the singular purposes of enhancing knowledge, appreciation, respect and sustainable utilization of these resources for the benefit of Kenya and the world, for now and posterity, with a mutual concern for the comprehensive welfare of mankind and the conservation of the biological-diversity of Kenya and of Africa.
The Joy of Visiting Museums
There is undeniably something that unites us when we visit the museum. It is a kindred lesson that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward” or, “it is being here now that is important. There is no past and there’s no future. Time can be very a misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can only hope for the future but we don’t know if there is one”. Of the many lessons we learn at the museum, one is that we may inspire ourselves and others around us that change, good or bad, is always possible and that there is no damper to what the human spirit can accomplish. There is, if you look closely within the walls of the museum, a wise lesson that man since time immemorial has sought to fix the world around him to better the life of future generations. And that one day his children, and his children’s children, will enjoy a happier, safer, prospering life. Even so, it is no use to justify history, or even any aptness trying to explain it. What is more is to have the courage to learn from history and not live in it. In fact, it’s preceptive to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. “A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open is into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”.
1. Kabarnet Museum
Established in 1996, the Kabarnet Museum was principally instituted to exhibit Kenya’s hard-and-fast cultural mix, specially on the communities of the Keiyo, Marakwet, Kipsigis, Samburu, Tugen, Pokot and Nandi who are indigenous to Baringo. Furthermore, it also exhibits the rich history of Baringo County’s pre-colonial, colonial and the post-independence periods. Just outside the central museum is a Snake House originally founded by Jonathan Leakey which houses some of the spellbinding snakes and reptiles found in the region. One of the surpassing functions of the Snake House is to collect venom used to produce antibodies to counteract the fatal effects of the toxins dispensed by the spine-tingling collection of creatures. Jonathan Leakey over many years trained snake handlers – including those at the National Museum of Nairobi – to work with the poisonous snakes. “He now operates a Nakuru-based company (Jonathan Leakey Ltd) which supplies East African snake venoms and medicinal plants for antivenom manufacturers, medical researchers and pharmaceutical agencies. Kabarnet Museum is located in Kabarnet Town near Baringo County Assembly.
2. Kakapel Rock Art Monument
Proclaimed a National Monument in 2004, the other-worldly Kakapel Rock Art sheltered at the base of a gigantic granite outcrop is both a dramatic landscape and a rare historic destination deserving a visit by any tripper to Busia County. Kakapel, unlike the other large rock art sites in Kenya, is composed of art from three discernible time-scales. “The first painting is done in red, and drawn with fingers; it includes geometric designs and a red animal, probably an elephant. These paintings may date from 2,000 to 4,000 years old. The second painting depicts domestic cattle and a small elephant. The date of these cattle paintings is unknown, but they could be more than 3,000 years old. The third painting is entirely of finger-drawn images of geometric designs and animals and its origin is the most difficult to determine” – Trust for African Rock Art. This chain of rock art is the most intricate in Kenya. The three adjacent shelters are reached via a secure walk-ledge and curators are on-site to guide you through the tour. Kakapel sits at the slopes of the pretty Chelelemuk Hills where very little of the range has been exploited, and there is an abundance of high rocks and hillocks to explore on foot. It’s also a dreamy and brill location for camping and birding.
Elgeyo Marakwet County
3. Tambach Museum
Considered by itself, Tambach Museum is rather underwhelming. However, in the setting that formed the galvanic history of Tambach it is an interesting site. Tambach Museum is housed in the former D.C.’s residence, which is a 7-rooms bungalow designed in the same style seen in many of the pioneer buildings at Tambach. Along its walls is a photographic exhibition showcasing Kenya’s rich cultural diversity especially on the heritages of Elgeyo and Marakwet Tribes. In addition to its framed cultural history and cultural artefacts, it also exhibits the luring history of the region’s pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence eras. Conspicuously located on the Tambach Shelf, between Elgeyo Escarpment and Kerio Valley, Tambach first gained popularity as the “cliff dwellers of Kenya”, a term coined by the missioner J.A. Massam to depict its peculiar location at the cliff edge. Tambach Centre grew quickly as a result of the Colonial Government moving their administration station, in 1927, from Kamariny to Tambach, from where they administrated the Keiyo and Marakwet regions. By 1928, Tambach High School had been completed; pioneering education among the Keiyo. This was quickly followed by Tambach College, dispensaries, road infrastructure and general projects. The road from Kabarnet to Tambach was completed in 1930. Tambach as the administrative head was marred by multiple setbacks from the onset. Moving the station from Kamariny paved way for the enterprising Keiyo to challenge foreign traders in their region. In turn, Kamariny gradually lost its status as a prime trading centre, with most traders investing at Tambach. The development of Tambach Centre also exacerbated the differences between these two communities, who were never cordial to begin with. At the tailender of the quagmire, the district was declared “closed” and all its visitors had to be vetted. The District Commissioner, then housed at the present-day Tambach Museum, was at the centre of all the bedlum. It is located 10 kms south of Iten Viewpoint.
4. Abasuba Peace Museum
The Abasuba Community, originally from neighbouring Uganda, predominate the rocky Mfangano Island and the Abasuba Peace Museum founded in 2000 aims to promote and preserve their remarkably unique cultural heritage. Here, travellers can view a pictographic collection of the Abasuba Rock Art, visit the Magerenge Shrines, learn at the Communal Centre, study more about culture at their library or enjoy a night or two either at their campsite or cottages. The Abasuba Peace Museum, managed by the Trust for Rock Africa Art (TARA), was one of the first community museums to be supported by the National Museums of Kenya and the Government of Kenya through Kenya Tourism Trust Fund. It is located near Ramba 2 kms north of the ferry jetty at the east tip of Mfangano.
5. Olorgesailie Museum
12 kms past Mount Olorgesailie, at Oltepesi, is a momentous landmark among the archaeological sites of Kenya. At this site, a respectable size of tools made by the pre-historic man some 200,000 years ago remain exposed and are visible to visitors. First excavated in 1919 by geologist John Gregory and subsequently in 1942 by Louis Leakey, Olorgesailie Museum is best known for its enriching and fascinating pre-history of man. The site itself is on a dried lake basin thought to have existed about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Fittingly eke-named the tool factory, it exhibits many of tools associated with the Middle Pleistocene Epoch. Unique to the Olorgesailie Museum is its looping elevated walkway, which goes appreciably close to the excavation site exposing lots of interesting artefacts. It makes for an intriguing final destination on an afternoon’s vivify joyride across the humps of Ngong Hills down to the Rift Valley. The more ardent adventurer may wish to continue down to Lake Magadi 35 kms past the exit to Olorgesailie.
6. Fort Ternan Pre-Historic Site
Even with its popularity in multiple estimable scientific journals, there is little that separates Fort Ternan Pre-historic Site from its abutting rugged landscape, aside from the ‘mud thatched hut’ built on the site of a proposed museum. The site itself is not an easy to reach. There is no road-signage about it, other than a seldom used footpath to the former paleontologist’s base. Howbeit, it is one of the noteworthy pre-historic sites in Kenya. First excavated in 1961 by Dr Louis Leakey, Fort Ternan Pre-historic Site produced a partial maxilla (or lower jaw bone) of what was considered to be a 14 million year old hominid dubbed as “Kenyapithecus wickeri” – one of the big Miocene Era finds excavated in Kenya. In 1967, Dr. Louis Leakey named a second species “Kenyapithecus africanus”, which he based on fragmentary teeth and jaw material found at Maboko Island in Lake Victoria, which is found about 98 kilometers from the Fort Ternan Site.
7. Jumba la Mtwana
Chronicled as ‘the house of many doors’ or ‘the slavemaster’s house’, Jumba la Mtwana is perhaps the most pronounced structure along the Coast Region of Kenya, and among the best preserved ancient ruins. It consists of four mosques and a number of houses located in a picturesque setting on and above the beach not far north of the mouth of Mtwapa Creek. Or again, “Jumba la Mtwana has four mosques, a tomb and four houses that survived in recognizable condition. These houses include the House of the Cylinder, The House of the Kitchen, The House of the Many Pools and the Great Mosque; all part of its three phases. The inhabitants of this centre were mainly Muslims as evidenced by its numbers of ruined mosques”. The site was investigated in depth by James Kirkman in 1972, who cleared some of the houses and at least one of the mosques. He dates the site to the late 11th Century-early 15th Century. One of the mosques of Jumba la Mtwana, cleared and planned by Kirkman in 1972 is aptly known as the Great Mosque or the Mosque by the Sea. There is a second mosque near the centre of the site, a small mosque at the far western end, and the fourth mosque, or the domed mosque, is found some metres north of the cleared areas of the National Monument. North of this mosque is a cemetery with numerous tomb enclosures abutting the little coral cliff to the west. The style of architecture seen at Jumba la Mtwana is comparable to the style of ancient ruins found at the Songo-Mnara Region off Tanzania’s Coast. The ruins are found 18 kms north of Mombasa, off Mombasa-Malindi-Lamu Road for 4 kms to the northern area of Mtwapa Creek.
8. Mnarani Ruins
Among the numerous ruins of ancient Swahili towns along the Coast of Kenya is Mnarani, which was occupied in the 14th Century. It serves as a great example of the ancient civilization that thrived here for hundreds of years. To start with, there is a magnificent pillar tomb with a Friday Masjid (Mosque) and 12 tombs labelled from A to L, still in good condition. Then, there are the captivating fine carvings at its large pillar tomb, which is marked by layered arcs on the mihrab with stellar coral inscriptions still in immaculate condition. It has slave tunnels too. The ancient Mnarani Ruins are situated at south bank of Kilifi Creek about 55 kms north of Mombasa City, and just 200 ms off Mombasa to Malindi Road.
9. Gede Ruins
This is found at the corner of Mombasa-Malindi Road and Gede-Watamu Road, 16 kms before arriving at Malindi. Typical of most ancient towns along the East African Coast, the 12th-16th Century Gede Ruins are a relic of the ancient Arab towns. “Gede traces its origin in the 12th Century but was rebuilt with new walls in the 15th and 16th Centuries”. The entire site is estimated to cover 45-acres in the primeval forest at the edge of Arabuko-Sokoke. Gede Ruins are one of three most important historic locations along Kenya’s coast, owing to the quality and quantity of its remains. It was also the first intensively studied site. Work began in 1948, led by James Kirkman, concentrated in the north-central quarter of the area. The key ruins are comprised of a conglomeration of mosques, palaces and houses, with one of its most imposing structures being the Great Mosque. This as it stands is the youngest of 3 mosques. The first, about which little is known, was built in the mid 15th Century; then, half a century later, a similar Mosque to the present one was built. The latter dates to the mid 16th century. It’s a large mosque with four rows of six square pillars and further divided in two by a wall.
There are six lesser mosques at Gede Ruins: Mosque of the Long Conduit, the Mosque of the Three Aisles, the Small Mosque, the Mosque of the Sarcophagi, the Mosque Between the Walls, and the Mosque on the South Wall. All of the mosques had a single central row of one, two or perhaps three pillars, except the Mosque of the Three Aisles, where two rows of pillars left an unobstructed view of the mihrab. All of the mosques had eastern ablution facilities, again with the probable exception of the Mosque of the Three Aisles, where these seem to have been on the west. The units combined to make up the Gede houses are: forecourts and domestic courts; long rooms, usually spanning the width of the house; small rooms, based on the division of a long room; store rooms, usually at the rear of the house or at the end of a suite of small rooms; toilets of the typical coast type; lobbies and entryways, essentially small rooms for the passage from one area to another; and passageways, usually of long corridors from a street to the entrance of the houses. According to historians, Gede was partly wiped off (in 1528) by troopers from Mombasa opposing the Portuguese.
10. Malindi Museum
From Gede, it’s a short 16 kms hop to Malindi Town, reached soon after passing the Malindi International Airport set 2.5 kms outside the main town. Equally a necessary logistic for Lamu and Tana River Counties and a holiday destination, Malindi has a lot to interest the visitor. One of the easiest to find is the Malindi Museum, along Silversand Road. Also known as the House of Columns, this was originally an Indian trader’s house, then the town’s hospital, before its recasting as the first National Museum in Malindi. As a destination, it is one of the nicest museums in Kilifi County, which expositions an impressive display of artefacts related to different eras that have dominated the region, in addition to, hosting many temporary exhibitions and multiple cultural festivals. Malindi Museum is located 1.2 kms from Malindi Roundabout via Tana Street and Silversand Road.
12. Kisumu Museum
From Awasi it is a 41 kms journey to Kisumu City, through Ahero Centre where the River Nyando Bridge is crossed and the dormitory outskirts settlements of Nyamasaria and Nyalenda before arriving at Kisumu. Of a more recent period is the bypass midway between Nyamasaria and Nyalenda that diverts traffic away from the main town onto A1 Kisumu-Vihiga Road and B1 Kisumu-Busia Road. Shortly after Nyalenda you pass Mega City Shopping Mall (left) and just 300 ms ahead, passing CITAM Kisumu Church (left), sits Kisumu Museum. Started in 1980, it stores and showcases information in didactic panels illustrating useful insights on both local cultures and scientific matters, with emphasis on the Luo Tribe. As it happens, the Kisumu Museum is a convenient first stop at Kisumu where travellers can fast-track their wits and knowledge on social histories and cultural calisthenics. Some of the key interests include a traditional Luo cultural village (with audio guides), gallery hall exhibition, an aquarium and a snake pit.
13. Lamu Fort
The stately Lamu Fort, open in 1821, is a grand metaphor for Lamu’s prosperity and dominance after foiling Mombasa and Pate Island in the Battle of Shela. In 1812, joint forces of Pate and Mombasa were repulsed by Lamu in a fierce battle on the beaches of Shela. In the same year Lamu sought and received protection from the Sultan of Oman; and Lamu Fort was built and garrisoned by Omani soldiers. Lamu, thanks to its pleasant relationship with the Omani rulers who later established the Sultanate of Zanzibar, grew into a busy tradepost. By the middle of the 19th Century, its daus were trading in ivory, mangroves, oil seeds, hides, grains, cowries, tortoise shells and hippo teeth in large quantities. Ivory was bought from the Wasania hunters through the intermediary of Kipini, Kau and the other settlements of Tana River. The protective presence of Lamu Fort in the middle of Lamu Town, and visible for miles around it, spurred growth of the town with many of its houses been built around it. Henceforth, the excellent siting of the town and its fort protected them against attack from the mainland warlike tribes which at the time almost destroyed many mainland and island towns like Kilwa and Mombasa. Today, the huge open space in-front of Lamu Fort, under the shade of casuarina trees, is a treasured public area popular with playing of the Bao, an ancient traditional board game. The 17th Century was the episode of Pate’s supremacy, during which time Lamu was a subsidiary of Pate.
14. Lamu Museum
The double-storey medieval Lamu Museum, originally built in 1892 as a fort and later reestablished as a museum in December 1971, collects, preserves and expositions the far-reaching history of Lamu Island. This provides very useful assistance for travellers to the Lamu Archipelago through illustrious stories of Lamu’s history from its trade era to present. It has a great memorabilia library, and multiple festivals are hosted within its courtyards. It is in possession of about 1,000 pieces of Sassanian Islamic pottery collected mainly from nearby island towns like Kipungani. Lamu Museum is located about 200 ms north of Lamu Fort along the town’s main seafront street, that’s easily accessible on foot.
15. Takwa Ruins
At the southeastern fringe of Manda Island, 2 kms east of the Maljis Hotel, on a low hill, sits the famous Takwa Ruins, which, according to J. Kirkman (who first excavated the site) belong to the 16th and 17th Centuries. As with many adage centres along the Swahili Coast, Takwa was deserted mysteriously in the 17th Century, presumably for the lack of fresh water. The Pate chronicles claim that the towns at Manda Island succumbed to the power of Pate and a section of the inhabitants escaped across the creek to Lamu Island. The story is continued in the Lamu chronicle which says that although the people of Lamu were prepared to give them shelter they did not, however, permit them to build their houses of stone. Takwa Ruins have the remains of a large mosque; above its mihrab is a pillar. The feature appears once more in the 15 Century domed mosque of Kilwa where the stone pillar is fluted. There are remains of a second town just east of Takwa. The center of interest at Takwa is the stone column about 2.5 ms high at the northern end. There are didactic panels at the site providing plenty of useful information for travellers to the ruins, courtesy of National Museums of Kenya. Takwa Ruins are approached from the mainland (Shela or Lamu) via a narrow mangrove fringed channel into Manda Island. Allow yourself at least two hours to get to the ruins, although many a travel writer insist the boat tour and walk takes an hour. Once at the jetty, there is a raised boardwalk leading to the ruins.
16. Pate Ruins
Part of the astounding ruins scattered around Pate Town, some thought to date back to as early as the 9th Century, are the crumbling Nabahani Ruins; which later merged with its early center buildings. Nabahani were a group of ousted prominent Arabs who settled into the existing settlement at Pate Island some time in the 9th Century. Also prominent on Pate Island are the ruins of the old Swahili towns of Shanga and Faza and the great Siyu Fort. At her prime, Pate was a prominent trade centre which dominated most trade in Lamu. During the 17th Century, Portuguese succeeded in asserting the ascendancy over the larger stretch of the Coast. Portuguese garrisons occupied several points at the Coast, and kept a customs house in Pate. Later that century, Portugal’s position in the Indian Ocean was deteriorating in the face of intense competition from Dutch and English. Swahili dissent was led by Pate, aided by the Omani, rising against the Portuguese five times during the 17th Century. Portugal’s end came with the capture of Fort Jesus by the Omani Arabs in 1669, after a siege of thirty months.
17. Siyu Fort
This is found about 5 kms east of Pate Town, 9 kms east of Faza and just north of Shanga. The small settlement of Siyu is widely-known for the remains of Siyu Fort; an antique mid-19th Century fort. Oral traditions suggest that it was built by Siyu’s prominent leader Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak (or Bwana Mataka) “who also rebuilt much of the town including a fine stone mansion for himself, of which the remains are still to be seen”. Within the Fort is a Friday Mosque with an elegant minbar or lectern dated to about 1521 AD. Siyu is also famous for fine skills in furniture-making and leather-crafting. As this may suggest, Siyu’s prosperity continued much longer than that of Pate, and unlike many other ecclesiastical relic forts at Lamu, Siyu Fort is unique because it was built to protect the town from the advancing Omani Arabs domination. Siyu is the only town which built a fort of its own, unlike Mombasa and Lamu where the forts were put up by foreigners. One of the endearing features of Siyu Fort, on one of the towers, is a carronade still in its original position and still with remains of its wooden carriage around it. Siyu Fort was gazetted as a National Monument in 1958. It’s reached either by boat up Takwa creek and then by foot to Siyu, or by rounding Manda Island by boat to Shanga and a short walk north.