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12/5/2017
A Trip to Nairobi National Museum
A Trip to Nairobi National Museum

Meet the relatives

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. Until the museum was refurbished in 2008, you would have had no chance of seeing these treasures: they were locked away in a cellar far below the dusty halls of the original museum and had not seen the light of day for fifty years or more. Now, however, they’re on display, and it’s quite a show.

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.

Well, we all know what that feels like.

Turkana boy is not the only relative you will meet either. In the Hall of Primates you’ll encounter your nearest relative: the ape. A large sign hangs on the wall reading, ‘What is the difference between an ape and a man?’ And the answer is 4% of DNA. Roughly translated this means that you have a bigger brain than an ape, you don’t have a muzzle, you have smaller canine teeth, better communication skills and more self-awareness; Oh, and you’re smarter with tools. This is useful information if you’re planning on going on safari while you’re in Kenya: you won’t laugh quite so hard at the antics of the baboons and the your other primate cousins.

Elsewhere in the museum the Cycles of Life gallery offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Kenya’s many ethnic groups, while 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. 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.

How to decide?

Well, stabbers fight by whirling around in a circle whilst feverishly stabbing at their opponents; wrestlers lock horns until one gives up or they both die in the attempt; and clashers bash into each other head-to-head as forcefully as they can until one falls over.

Sound familiar?

The museum is vast. Gallery upon gallery displays every type of stuffed creature, pinned insect and ancient artifact – all beautifully displayed and intelligently explained. You can bash away at a rock with a stone-age axe, peer at a reconstruction of life at the dawn of time, or marvel at a map of Kenya composed entirely of indigenous butterflies. 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.

So – don’t dismiss the 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).

How to get there
The museum stands on Museum Hill, which is about a ten-minute taxi-ride from the Villa Rosa Kempinski. The concierge will be delighted to arrange the trip for you.
How long to allow
Allow a minimum of three hours to merely whisk around in a fairly glancing manner. For in-depth coverage allow all day – but take a break for lunch or coffee.
For further information
The museum is open 365 days a year from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm. For further information: museums.or.ke

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