In 2008, the Nairobi National Museum reopened its doors after a three-year, Ksh800 million facelift. The refurbished result is a still partly sparkling, showpiece attraction and a good prelude to any tour around the country. It’s easy to reach from the centre of town and provides a solid overview of Kenya’s culture, history and wildlife.
Hall of Kenya
This expansive entry hall into the museum is sparsely appointed with some of Kenya’s most impressive and unusual artefacts and artworks. In one display case is a Swahili siwa from the 1680s. The siwa, a ceremonial horn intricately carved from an elephant tusk, was traditionally blown on celebratory occasions as a symbol of unity and was considered to possess magical powers. There is also a sambu, a Kalenjin elder’s cloak made from the skins of Sykes’ monkeys. Beautiful photos of some of Kenya’s animals adorn the wall of this hall, and prepare you for the next gallery.
The Great Hall of Mammals
Dedicated to Africa’s charismatic, endangered megafauna, and the plains animals that are still found in some abundance in Kenya, this hall features some impressive dioramas. In the centre of the room are examples of a giraffe, an elephant, a buffalo, a zebra and an okapi, the strange forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe found only in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Along the walls are displays of most of Kenya’s mammals, including the big cats, primates and antelopes, with explanations of their habitats, diets and life cycles. Also displayed in this gallery is the skeleton of Ahmed, the most famous of the giant-tusked bull elephants of Marsabit, in the north of the country. In the 1970s, when poaching was rampant in northern Kenya, conservationists feared that Ahmed would be targeted because of his enormous tusks. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, assigned two rangers to track Ahmed day and night until he died of natural causes at the age of 55. His tusks weighed in at 68kg (150lb) each. There’s a life-size replica of Ahmed in the courtyard between the entrance and the shop.
Just off the Hall of Kenya gallery is a room devoted to ornithology, featuring 1600 specimens in glass cases. Kenya’s birdlife usually makes a strong impression, even on non-birdwatchers. Look out for the various species of hornbill, turaco and roller, and for the extraordinary standard-wing nightjar, which is frequently seen fluttering low over a swimming pool at dusk, hunting for insects.
The Cradle of Human Kind
The unique interest of the Nairobi museum lies in the human origins exhibit, where paleontology displays are housed. Along the walls, skeletons and skull casts of ancient hominins trace primate diversity and the evolution of the human species back millions of years. Of particular importance is the almost complete skeleton of “Turkana Boy”, the 1.6-million-year-old remains of an immature male hominin found near Lake Turkana. Hardcore paleontology fans will want to visit the Hominin Skull Room, which contains the skulls of some of our ancient ancestors and non-ancestral cousins, such as Homo erectus. The understanding of human evolution is itself a rapidly evolving field, with new theories about human origins and ancestry appearing almost yearly, but East Africa is invariably its field-research location.
Cycles of Life
Upstairs, next to the temporary galleries of local art, the Cycles of Life exhibit covers Kenya’s tribes and cultures, in neatly laid out displays of artefacts telling the story of each ethnic group from childhood through adulthood to ancestor status. If you’re planning on travelling through any of the areas inhabited by pastoral peoples (especially Pokot, Samburu, Maasai or Turkana), then seeing some old and authentic handicrafts beforehand is a good idea.
The room begins with a display of traditional birthing methods and child-rearing techniques, including a traditional Pokot child carrier made from monkey skin and children’s toys made from discarded scraps of metal. The exhibit moves on to explain initiation and circumcision rituals. On display here is a Maasai warrior outfit, complete with spear and shield. The adulthood display contains various clothing and beauty products including beaded necklaces and earplugs used by some of the semi-nomadic tribes to stretch the earlobes. A display of grave markers and artefacts used to send someone into the afterlife marks the end of the exhibit.