Museum Security Network

Kenya: Theft of Artefacts Leads to Change of Focus At Museum

Dennis Ouma26 August 2009

Nairobi — When Kitale Museum in Kenya was closed in late July and all the 31 workers suspended after theft of the institutions most valuable collection, focus turned to the fate of a small menagerie of local and exotic animals that still needed feeding and care.

The museum, located a few metres from the town centre, boasts of two adult Nile crocodiles, three species of tortoise and a snake park, whose inhabitants are relatively harmless such as the common house snakes.

However, a few metres from the park is another set of venomous reptiles, safely kept in exhibition cases to ensure the safety of visitors. These lethal snakes kept behind glass exhibition cases include puff adder, Gabon viper, rhinoceros viper, black mamba and forest cobra.

Tiny tortoise

“Proof that typical life for these animals has not been interrupted in anyway are those tiny tortoise,” says Mr Julius Ogega, pointing at a group of young tortoise, probably a few days old, dotting the tortoise pen that houses three different species from a collection of more than 20 of the unique hard-shelled animals.

Mr Ogega is the leader of four new employee’s posted from National Museums of Kenya stations in different parts of the country to oversee operations at Kitale.

All the staff at Kitale from top management to labourers were sent home after the theft between May and mid-July of the entire museum centrepiece, 58 artifacts commonly known as the Stoneham collection.

National Museums director-general Idle Farah says that each of the stolen piece could easily fetch Sh1 million on the international antiquities market. The entire Stoneham collection, donated to the museum in 1920 by a decorated British soldier Hugh Stoneham, was stolen save for a lion skin and butterflies.

The collections, that included a military sword and a collection of scientific artefacts, including a microscope, provided the foundation upon which the museum was established.

And following the loss, NMK’s board is seriously considering changing the focus of the museum shorn of its most valuable collection.

NMK regional director for sites and monuments, Dr Mzalendo Kibunja, says this will also involve reorganising the station’s gallery. It will also involve restocking the Kitale Museum with new exhibits in place of the Stoneham collection, Mr Ogega, says.

The Kitale museum the first regional one after opening its doors to the public in 1974 — has a lot of ethnographical material collected from surrounding ethnic groups including Bukusu, Nandi, Pokot, Sabaot and early European settlers.

The skeleton staff presently on duty undertakes routine cleaning, maintenance and repair works besides feeding and caring for the animals. The team also takes care of rats reared to feed the snakes at the station, and which are conveniently kept in the same room, but behind the structure which houses the poisonous snakes.

“The snakes are fed once a week to ensure they do not grow big in size” Mr Ogega says. Ditto the two crocodiles, kept in separate ponds but which are adjacent to each other.

Other animals in the museum are two cows. The Freisian cows have their dung used to operate a biogas plant at the station, used for demonstrating how the green energy operates, to the many visitors who usually flock the museum.

The station also boasts of ornamental birds including Turkeys and crested guinea fowls as well as a variety of meticulously labelled medicinal plant species and a dense nature trail that borders Kitale club.

Emerging challenge

Mr Ogega says his team has had to deal with intruders, who sneak into the museums expansive compound to cut trees and fetch deadwood for firewood.

“These people also cut trees and other plant species, which they use in making concoctions for herbal medicine, he says. “From our observation among their favourite plant species is the Prunus Africana, which is believed to offer cure for prostate cancer, he says.

He however, adds that guards from a private security firm hired to protect the station have intensified patrols to deter the intruders.

He bemoans sewer water from Kitale Town, which loudly flows into a stream that meanders within the museum’s dense and serene nature trail, whose thick forest is also used for agroforestry.

This flow, if not checked, he warns, could endanger organisms in the station.

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