Nairobi National Museum
Nairobi National Museum
Nairobi National Museum Entrance

The Nairobi National Museum is a one stop for visitors to sample Kenya’s rich heritage, both for education and leisure. It is located at the Museum Hill – a few minutes’ drive from Nairobi Central District. Nairobi National Museum houses a collection of Kenya’s history, nature, culture and contemporary art.

A trip to the Nairobi National Museum might not, at first, strike you as an enthralling prospect. But think again. It’s not just that the museum offers you an unrivalled insight into Kenya’s history, culture, flora, fauna and avifauna. It’s because it also allows you to meet up with some of your most distant relations.

Described as ‘the single most important collection of early human fossils in the world, the museum houses the quite extraordinary discoveries of the world-famous Leakey family, whose discoveries in Kenya and Tanzania taught us more about our far distant past than we had ever known before.

Encased in a glass chamber with a time-locking door that clicks shut behind you with alarming finality, the skulls of our ancestors are displayed in eerily blue-glowing cases. Enigmatic and silent, your immeasurably ancient forefathers stare back at you from blackened eye-sockets. The air conditioning hums like a time-machine.

The oldest, Proconsul is 18-million-years-old; the famous Homo habilis ‘skull 1470’ is 1.9 million-years-old, and the fragile skeleton of ‘Turkana boy’ is 1.6 million-years-old. He died, we are told when he staggered and fell face down in a swamp – agonized by the pain of toothache.

The Hall of Kenya is dedicated to highlighting the country’s unique tangible and intangible heritage. The museum’s permanent collection is entered via the Hall of Kenya, with some ethnological exhibits such as the extraordinary Kalenjin cloak made from the skins of Sykes Monkeys and a mosaic map of Kenya made from the country’s butterflies.In this gallery Kenya’s nature, culture and history meet. The objects on display are a testimony to the country’s diverse and rich heritage.

Elsewhere in the museum the Cycles of Life gallery offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Kenya’s many ethnic groups. Life amongst Kenyan communities is filtered through different stages. From birth, through youth to old age, death and transition into ancestry. This gallery samples cultural practices from Kenya’s communities as associated with these different stages in life. There is a wealth of material and intangible cultural heritage to be appreciated in this gallery.

The Great Hall of Mammals traces the development of mammals over time, with a focus on their adaptations to movement, feeding and protection. The gallery confronts the visitor with points of congruence as well as divergence in the makeup of the mammalian world.

In the Hall of Mammals you can see a (stuffed) elephant with tusks weighing 68 kilos each; a spiny mouse that defeats its predators by choking them on its fur; a shrew that ‘lives by bulldozing its way through leaf-matter’; a pangolin seemingly composed entirely of Keratin; and a giant forest hog the size of a conservative sofa.

Elephant at Nairobi National Museum
Ahmed the elephant at Nairobi National Museum

You can also learn that, as a mammal, which we all are, you automatically fall into one of three categories when it comes to defending yourself. You’re a stabber, a wrestler or a clasher. Finally, on the way out of the museum there is an enthralling display of black-and-white photographs.

Emaciated members of the Mau Mau stare death-blank from behind coils of barbed wire: men in baggy colonial shorts smile for the camera. Two of Kenya’s founding fathers leap off the ground hugging each other in joy at the declaration of Independence and a little white boy stares wonderingly at his African counterpart.

The Historia ya Kenya display is an engaging journey through Kenyan and East African history. Well-presented and well documented, it offers a refreshingly Kenyan counterpoint to colonial historiographies.

So don’t dismiss the Nairobi National Museum out of hand. It also offers a buzzing coffee shop, a choice of eateries, a charming botanical garden, a herbarium and a snake park where, amongst other things, you can see a Gabon viper with the longest fangs in the world (4cm).