Explore Kenya's Communities at Nairobi Gallery

Where past, present, and future meets

By National Museums of Kenya

Welcome to the Nairobi Gallery

Built in 1913, the Nairobi Gallery was formerly a civil service building, fondly referred to as 'Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches' because of the births, marriages, and deaths that were recorded there. Today the building serves as a museum and national monument.

Point zero

Divided into 6 main rooms, each containing a different collection, the Nairobi Gallery houses the Murumbi African Heritage Collection and temporary art exhibitions. It is also the location of Point Zero, from which all distances were measured in Kenya.

A National Monument

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, this building became the first Nairobi Provincial Commissioner’s office. Realizing the building’s importance, officials declared it a National Monument in 1995. The Nairobi Gallery opened in 2005.

The Murumbi African Heritage collection

Inside the Joseph and Sheila Murumbi Room, items collected and used by the Murumbis are on display. Joseph Murumbi was appointed as the second vice president of Kenya in 1966 – a position he held for only 6 months.

Joseph Murumbi and his wife collected African artefacts and the works of African artists. In 1976, they sold the collection to the Kenyan Government. It became available to the public in 2013.

Joseph Murumbi (1911–1990) played a pivotal role in forming the constitution and government agencies of a newly independent Kenya in 1964–1966.

He also was a supporter and collector of East African artists, and opened Africa’s first Pan African Gallery with his wife and a friend, Alan Donovan.

Sheila Murumbi was a librarian and stamp collector when she met her future husband Joseph Murumbi. Together with their friend Alan Donovan, they supported and showcased African Art. By the time of her death in 2000, her stamp collection was said to rival that of the Queen of England.

American art collector, interior designer and businessman Alan Donovan worked closely with Joseph and Sheila Murumbi to collect and promote Pan African art. He continues to organise and curate exhibitions all around the world showcasing Africa’s rich cultural legacy.   

African jewelry

Examples of African jewelry date back thousands of years. Throughout history, the people of Africa have used jewelry as decorative adornment, markers of status, currency, and for ceremonial purposes.

Jewelry inspired by the Turkana people

Alan Donovan worked with the Turkana community who used the readily available cooking pots to produce jewelry and accessories based on African traditions.

African textiles

The art of making, designing, and embroidering African textiles is as old as time and, in fact, African textiles can serve as historical documents. Cloth can be used to commemorate a person, event, and even a political cause.

Textile has also been used to convey important cultural information, and has often played a central role in festivities and ceremonies. Both men and women weave cloth. Materials vary from place to place and include palm, bamboo, raw silk, pineapple fiber and even metals.

Kenya's communities

The National Museums of Kenya holds objects telling the stories of Kenyan communities. This gallery showcases the art and artifacts of the skilled and diverse craftspeople of the region

The African headdress

The African headdress is an elaborate piece of art worn on the head. Most headdresses have a profound cultural meaning, but some are worn for social appearances or to shield the wearer against the elements.

This Turkana headdress made of ancestral hair and decorated with ostrich feathers ensures the bond between the living and the ancestors is still strong

Everyday objects, such as spoons, resting stools, and garments used for important rituals and ceremonies are on display. Weapons that might have been used in war, as status symbols, and in traditional ceremonies are also showcased.

African stools

Both men and women used stools to carry out everyday activities. In some cultures, anyone can use a low stool with two legs but only men can use a high stool.

Calabashes (containers)

Kenyan communities developed containers to cook, carry, and store things. The shapes of these containers were determined by what they stored and the materials used to make them. Some could be decorated through carving, incising or through bead work.

Weapons

On display are weapons from the peoples of East Africa, including the Maasai and Turkana. Most notable are the spears, made using a long wooden sheath and a hammered metal head, as well as the bow and arrows, and shields made from buffalo and giraffe hide.

A corridor to art, history and culture

Works of prominent artists from Africa hang in the Nairobi Gallery’s corridors. Styles and techniques vary greatly. Some works depict traditional African folktales, while others make statements about the politics and events of recent years.

Joseph and Sheila Murumbi and Alan Donovan had personal connections to many of the pioneering artists represented at the Nairobi Gallery, having supported and shown their works since they opened their first gallery, the African Heritage, in 1973.

Explore more

Learn about the communities of Kenya

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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