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In an election year, museums become especially relevant

Friday May 26 2017

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This month, the National Museums of Kenya is hosting a celebration around International Museums Day, which is commemorated around May 18 worldwide.

It is hosted by the local chapter of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which is represented in 176 countries, of which 119, including Kenya, have national committees.

ICOM was created in 1946 by museum professionals to foster their work globally and respond to the challenges that museums face.

Since 1977, International Museums Day has been organised around May 18 every year, to raise awareness on just how important museums are to the development of society. This year’s theme was “Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums.”

The first event, which did not take off, was an art exhibition that was to run for two weeks. The exhibition was centred on saying things people would rather leave unsaid, and its cancellation helped me realise just how misunderstood a theme can be.

There are those who argued the artist did not understand the theme. However, society needs to understand that contested histories are not centred on the past traumatic experiences of a nation such as colonialism, apartheid, slavery or racism, but also on the arts.

For example, the National Museums of Kenya has an amazing collection of botanical and ethnographic art by Joy Adamson. Is this a true reflection of Kenyan art, and is it the only art?


Has Kenya as a nation made efforts to have a national collection by Kenyans for Kenyans? Any effort to answer these questions will show art to be one of our contested histories.

It is interesting that this year’s theme was also chosen to demonstrate the role museums can play in creating a peaceful relationship between people and how acceptance and highlighting of contested histories is the first step towards reconciliation and the dream of a shared future.

The three artists chosen to lead the exhibitions, remember, not the only ones, include Patrick Mukabi, whose art, especially his drawings of women, has refused to fit into any national or international stereotypes and portrays them as they are made.

All sizes, all shapes, but mainly larger-than-life women, as found in many places in Africa. His paintings are beautiful, enlivening and bring to life scenes in which women can be found. He paints nudes of women as well.

Michael Soi creates art around social themes that society has chosen to hide from. For International Museums Day he has chosen a theme around the proliferation of churches and the resulting socio-economic activities that are not particularly religious in nature.


His art has been considered graphic and demonstrative in some quarters regarding issues that society wants to pretend do not exist.

John Batiers is a sculptor whose work includes life-size sculptures of life as we know it. May it be domestic violence, the matatu menace and how they represent everything in society that Kenyans do not aspire to and even the press and the central place it takes in Kenya yet can present fake news.

There were aggressive reactions on social media on the cancellation of this exhibition. The good news is that we were already discussing the unspeakable. The bad news is that the largest marketing machinery in the world today was contesting the position taken by our museums.

Also organised around this theme is a series of three lectures. The first was based on a book titled The Big Conservation Lie by Mordecai Ogada and John Mbaria.

The two authors, one an award-winning journalist and the other a research scientist, write about conservation of wildlife and the resulting human-wildlife conflict and seek to establish how indigenous people conserved the lush, beautiful and species-laden environment that the colonialist found in place.


They argue that indigenous, ethnic conservation is way superior to current models, as it was about respect and exchange with nature and spirituality.

Needless to say, the lecture elicited passionate reactions from the audience, and the book is a must-read for both sides of the divide on this contested history.  

There are two more lectures to go. One is by Prof Karega-Munene of United States International University–Africa, in which he will address the contestations of Kenyan history, and the other by Prof George Abungu in which he will address “The Role of Museums in Society: the Hard Questions”

At the end of the celebration period, which ends with the lecture on June 3, it is expected that the museum will have provided a platform on which multiple points of view can be presented on many of the issues that constitute our shared culture and history.

The art show and lectures were aimed at providing critical reflection on the memory of the nation and the issues that shape or tear it apart, which is what I love about museums. They are always on point, even in an election year.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa