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Why every county needs a museum urgently

Wednesday February 17 2016

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The promulgation of Kenya’s new constitution brought sweeping changes to heritage preservation.

While monuments and sites of national importance remained the responsibility of the national government, management of museums was devolved to county level.

It is not quite clear how the counties will eventually take on this mammoth role. Development and management of a Museum can seem like a walk in the park until one attempts to do it.

Most counties in Kenya do not have museums to boast of. Only Nairobi, Lamu, Mombasa, Kisumu and Trans Nzoia do. Several other counties have museums, but truth be told, they are mainly spaces of hope and intention, devoid of any noteworthy exhibits. These include Turkana, Kisii, Meru, Wajir, Garissa, Narok and Nakuru. Note that museums should not be confused with historic, sacred or cultural sites.

Thirty-five counties, therefore, have neither a museum nor any hope that one will be established soon. Yet museums have so many benefits that they really ought to be ahead of a large car and a plush residence on the governor’s priority list.

According to a 2013 report from the London School of Economics, museums have the same effect on a person as a pay rise. Museum exhibitions are excellent at storytelling, and this can have transformational experiences for those who visit museums, giving them a ‘high’.

The research places the individual wellbeing value of museums at over 3,000 Sterling pounds a year, making a very strong case for investing in them. The report also cites other reports that found viewing art could reduce perceived intensity of physical sensations, such as pain.

It would seem that not just counties, but also hospitals need more art in, say, the labour ward. Apparently hospital patients also report higher life satisfaction scores after handling of museum objects. How about a museum or art gallery for every hospital?

Viewing an exhibition or work of art was tested and found to be of equal value with intense physical activities such as sports, or going to the gymnasium. Instead of breaking a sweat and your back at the gym, one would incur the exact same health benefits if they visited the National Museums of Kenya and viewed an exhibition. This was found to be especially apply to men.

A researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology also found that engaging in cultural activities does wonders for a man’s health including lowering his risk of depression and anxiety.

Koenraad Cuypers, a researcher affiliated with the department of public health, worked with patients in psychological and physical pain who were therefore not in a position to take part in rigorous sporting activities that have been scientifically proven to have a remarkable improvement on overall health and wellbeing.

He sought alternatives for his patients and found that men benefit considerably more (14 per cent) than women (10 per cent) from taking part in cultural activities, such as going to the theatre or visiting an exhibition.

The more cultured participants were, the better their reported health was. Men benefited more as consumers, while women who showed marked improvement benefitted more as producers, for example, by painting or playing a musical instrument.

Further research at the University College London Hospital, by Guy Nobel, finds that museums have immense advantages for marginalised groups, the youth and the elderly. People visiting museums experience positive social impulses that reduce their sense of isolation.

Counties that have been marginalised, such as Turkana, Wajir, West Pokot, Mandera and any other, have an ideal opportunity, through museums to implement the county function of ‘protecting and promoting the interests and rights of minorities and marginalized communities’.

Meanwhile, the American Alliance of Museums, which advocates for 779 museums in the United States, emphasises the economic impact of museums in the communities that host them.

Employment, the use of locally produced goods and services, visitor experience and the educational factor are some of the benefits of museums it cites.

Counties therefore can, and should, use museums to further their objective of "recognising the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development".

In America, visitors to historical sites and cultural attractions, including museums, spend 53 per cent more money and stay 36 per cent longer at these sites than visitors to other attractions.

That is the beauty of museums and art exhibitions as opposed to, say, a theatre performance. They do not set a time frame for visits, and there is no urgency to understand, applaud or even participate. You can just indulge your senses and intellect to your satisfaction.

Over to the counties.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa