The Nairobi Railway Museum represents the historical growth of Kenya to the country it is now. The Museum was opened in 1971, and much of the credit for its foundation goes to its first Curator, Mr. Fred Jordan, who had been with the railways in East Africa as from 1927.
Realizing the speed at which changes were taking place on the railway system he saw the need to preserve as many links with the past as possible. He began to gather items which were to form the nucleus of the present-day museum’s fascinating and growing collection.
The Nairobi Railway Museum provides answers to many unanswered questions concerning the early history of the rail and Kenya’s development. Nairobi Railway museum consists of the Main Gallery, the Resource Center, the auditorium and an outdoor collection of locomotives, wagons and coaches.
It exposes the background of the Kenya-Uganda railway line, aptly nicknamed the Lunatic Express, whose construction is believed to have cost more than 2,500 lives through tropical diseases, murderous heat, and man-eating lions. It is estimated that four workers died for each mile of the 931-kilometre railway line. You can almost feel the fear in the eyes of the construction workers staring at you from the pictures on the museum walls.
Today, the Nairobi Railway Museum is dedicated to the history of the country’s rail network. There you’ll find an intriguing jumble of artifacts plus a variety of exhibits and ephemera that illustrate the construction and running of the railway.
There are models of railway engines that operated on the line, photographs of the railway throughout its history, and a varied selection of other oddities, including an interesting motorized railway bicycle.
In the surrounding yard are a number of mostly steam and some early diesel locomotives which operated as part of what was initially the Kenya-Uganda Railway, then the East Africa Railway Company and currently the Kenyan Railways Corporation.
The most impressive are some of the company’s old “Garratts,” a particularly large articulated steam engine that was capable of hauling heavy loads over the long distances and steep inclines of the narrow-gauge track. The museum is connected by track to the main Nairobi station and some of the engines are reportedly used for excursions.
In many ways, walking through the museum is like travelling through the whole stretch of that period in Kenya, starting with the annexation of Kenya as a British protectorate, and later colony, to the freedom struggle and independence.
Wandering on and around the locomotives makes for a lovely outing and gives you a surprising amount of insight into the nation’s development. The museum itself is almost a time capsule within a time capsule – a well preserved effort from the post-independence days of the 1970s to conserve an emblematic part of its colonial past.
Fitting then is the location of the museum, tucked away amid the modern skyscrapers of the central business district. The rising buildings are a constant reminder that all these days are past.
Inside the museum is the Nairobi Railway Art Gallery established in January 2012 by the Railway Museums management in collaboration with ECAK (Educultural Artists Kenya). The art studio is used by up and coming artists for a small monthly fee.
The artists benefit from mentoring and exposure by working with established artists and exhibiting their works during major exhibitions.
In every corner and on every surface, a discarded board, a sculpture or installation is propped up, or stuck down or painted on. There, on any given day, with music blaring from the small radio, artists are standing and sitting at easels or squatting over a canvas, peering closely at their work.