The Cultural Heritage Department is one of the oldest Research Departments of NMK. Previously called Ethnography, the department came into existence in 1970, headed by Anthropologist Jean Brown, to whom a number of the Museum’s outstanding collections are credited. At the time, the department was mainly engaged in conservation of material culture. Today, in addition to collection, documentation and conservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, the department undertakes research on various socio-cultural and environmental issues.
Over time, the department has expanded in its structure and its functions; the Cultures and History section consists of five units namely: Anthropology, Linguistics, History, Curation, and Documentation and information management. A complimentary Art section consisting of Contemporary Art, Art History, Curation and Documentation is planned. The department maintains close links and collaboration with the local communities and partners in fulfilling its vision and mission.
To research, collect, document, preserve and present to the public items of Kenya’s cultural heritage for education purposes and for their cultural and aesthetic value.
- Collect and document Kenya’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage and preserve them for posterity.
- Present the ethnographic collection to the public through exhibitions and lectures for educational purposes and for the public’s enjoyment.
- Conduct research on relevant socio-cultural themes in Kenya and disseminate the findings to the public.
- Promote the appreciation of the rich and diverse cultures of Kenyan communities through the Culture and Heritage Clubs of Kenya.
- Enhance the application of indigenous knowledge for cultural and biodiversity conservation and for development.
- Collaborate with other NMK departments as well as local and international institutions to fulfill the above stated objectives.
The department houses approximately 60,000 ethnographic objects spanning 100 years of collection and representing majority of the ethnic communities of Kenya, photographic slides and a small reference library. These are a vital source of information on ethno-genesis, ethno-history, economy, technology, briefs, leadership, health, education, aesthetics, entertainment and societal defense.
The objects which include weapons and tools, body-wear (clothing and ornaments), containers, ritual objects, furniture, among others, are used as research and teaching materials, attracting both local and foreign researchers and students.
Research activities and projects
The Cultural Heritage Department is involved in the following key activities:
- Field expeditions to research and collect information from both rural and urban communities on their practices, beliefs, indigenous knowledge and histories.
- Conservation of tangible (material culture) and intangible (oral narratives, music etc) heritage of the communities for posterity.
- Documentation and dissemination of heritage information through organized private and/or public lectures, publications, and conference/workshop presentations.
The department conducts research on several socio-cultural areas such as Traditional Peace and Conflict Resolution, The Social Functions of The Board Game, The Effects of Western Religions on Traditional African Arts and Crafts, Traditional Prediction of Future Events and Popular Urban Cultures of Nairobi, among others.
The collection provides objects for permanent and temporary exhibitions in the NMK galleries across the country for educational and recreational purposes. An interesting array of the objects is currently displayed at the Nairobi National Museum as part of the Cycles of Life Exhibition that captures birth, initiation, marriage, recreation, spirituality, healing and death rites amongst Kenyan communities.
In collaboration with the NMK Audio Visual Department, a number of documentaries have been produced for exhibitions and for creating awareness on various socio-cultural issues. The documentaries include:
- Miss – Peace (Pokot)
- Osutua – Peace (Maasai)
- The World of the Kanga
- Treasures of Kenya: Containers
- Treasures of Kenya: Costumes and Ornaments
- The Past and the Present
- Celebration of Life
- Kanga Stories: The cloth that reveals
The department collaborates with other organizations in order to effectively realize its objectives. Some of the past and present supporters and collaborators include:
- British Institute of Eastern Africa (B.I.E.A)
- British Museum (UK)
- Kenya Museum Society (KMS)
- The Christensen Fund (USA)
- Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, University of Nairobi (I.A.G.A.S)
- Tervuran Museum of East and Central Africa
- Swedish-African Museum Programs
- Athletics Kenya- Department of Athletics museum
- Ford Foundation
- Kenya National Archives
- University of Western Cape, South Africa
- Smithsonian Institution (USA)
- Other local and international organizations