The National Museums of Kenya has launched the Invinsible Inventories series, to map out a plan to reclaim Kenyan cultural objects in the possession of museums abroad. The series for discussions will open on the 17th of March at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.

Subsequently, two German museums, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, on the 28th of May, and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main, will present the exhibition from the 6th of October. The museums will also make the collections of Kenyan objects visible. These exhibitions are connected by the collective research that took place over the past two years, as part of the International Inventories Program (IIP).

Since 2019, IIP has been building a digital database of Kenyan cultural objects that are held in Western museum collections. To date, the database comprises over 32,000 objects. The database shall be made accessible to the public online from March 2021.

IIP consists of artist collectives; The Nest (Nairobi) and SHIFT (Germany/France), the National Museums of Kenya, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main and the Goethe-Institut. Museum experts, scholars and artists will research and investigate the implications provoked in host communities by the loss and absence of their objects of historical and cultural significance.

From empty display cabinets to man-eating lions: how to tell stories of loss?

The artist collective The Nest, represented by Jim Chuchu and Njoki Ngumi, reflects on and visualizes the sheer amount of objects recorded in the database. They address their values; from acquisition, to insurance and emotional value, as well as the power relations exerted by individual Western dealers and institutions.

Ten empty display cabinets will represent objects which are absent from the collection of the National Museums of Kenya, yet found in those of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum and the Weltkulturen Museum. These ten objects have been selected and closely investigated as a collaborative project between museum professionals from all three institutions.

The video documentaries represent the different voices from host communities who have been involved in the process. The installation A Topography of Loss by Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier (SHIFT collective) draws inspiration from how museums store these objects in an attempt to map the consequences of their absence in a poetic way.

Sam Hopkins and Marian Nur Goni (SHIFT collective) present a sound installation about the manifold narratives of the so-called Man-Eaters of Tsavo. These two legendary lions managed to bring the British imperial machinery to a halt at the turn of the 19th century, during the building of a railway in East Africa.

A key part of the IIP are the public Object Movement Dialogues. Several panelists from different local communities are invited to Nairobi to exchange views with Juma Ondeng’ of the National Museums of Kenya on the consequences of the absence of their objects.

To accompany the exhibition, a catalogue in the form of a magazine has been published in conjunction with Iwalewabooks (Bayreuth/Johannesburg) and Kwani (Nairobi).

Museum experts Njeri Gachihi, Frauke Gathof, Clara Himmelheber, Lydia Nafula, Leonie Neumann, Philemon Nyamanga and Juma Ondeng’ worked together on extensive object biographies to make a selection of the objects.