The Legacy of Joseph Murumbi: Making a Collection and Archive as Freedom Fighting

Installation shot of images and items from Joseph Murumbi collection at the
Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi
Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum, 2019

The legacy of Joseph Murumbi as a politician, a collector and, a businessman is expansive. He is mostly known through his political roles in Kenya and Africa, but also through the collections and archive he made. These latter two and by extension, among others, the Kenya National Archives—where some of Murumbi’s collection are currently on permanent display—, are publicly endorsed representations of identity, of the individuals and institutions which present them. I consider in this essay the politic carried in Joseph Murumbi’s archive, collection, and life.

Introduction: Joseph Murumbi’s and His Collections from the 1950s to Today

Joseph Murumbi is a Kenyan, born in 1911 in Eldama Ravine of a Goan-Indian father, Zuzarte and a Maasai woman, Murumbi. He spent most of his early life in India studying until 1933 when he returned to Kenya. He worked with his father until 1935, and later took a clerical job before going to work in Somalia. On his return, during the Emergency Period in the 1952, he was involved in party organization and meetings towards the negotiations for independence of Kenya from the British colonial rule. In 1953, he was sent to India, Cairo and Britain through the Kenya African Union party (KAU) and with the support of the Indian government to continue with lobbying in solidarity with those in Kenya fighting for independence. During his time in Britain, Murumbi started collecting books, and he also met his wife Sheila Ann Kaine who was a librarian, and together they continued to build a collection of books, art, art objects, stamps, and other ephemera.

Between 1952 and 1956, the British fought against the dominant resistance movement, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), also known as Mau Mau, through brutal military action and detentions. Although Mau Mau was quelled down by the end of 1956, it was only after January 1960, the First Lancaster House Conference in London, that a Kenyan majority rule was established and the period of transition to independence initiated. On one side are views that Kenya’s independence came about as a result of the British government’s deciding that a continuance of colonial rule would be costly in terms of resources and would entail a greater use of force. On the other, there was the growing pressure from nationalist movements that increasingly made British political development in Kenya redundant. The British then accepted Kenyan nationalism and moved to bargain with its leaders and organizations into collaboration. Leading up to independence on June 1, 1963, there were party organizations and coalitions that lead to the 1962 constitution which established the legislature and the elections were held in May 1963. Kenya gained self-rule and was declared a republic on December 12, 1964 with Jomo Kenyatta as Head of State. Murumbi continued in the new political dispensation as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, taking from Jomo Kenyatta who had become the president, a ministry he served until 1966. Consequentially, as a minister of the government, he travelled considerably in Africa, and acquired a significant collection of African art.

In 1965, Joseph Murumbi brought a bill before parliament that set in motion the setting up the national archive, currently the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service (KNA&DS), a department within the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts. It was established by an act of parliament, The Public Archives Act of 1965 (Commenced on 25th January 1966).

There shall be established, constituted and maintained a public department to be known as the Public Archives Service for which there shall be appointed a Chief Archivist, and such other staff as may be necessary for the purposes of this Act.” (Section 3. (1) – Establishment of Public Archives Service)[1]

In the same year, in 1965, his friend and mentor Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated. Pio was a Kenyan-Goan socialist leaning journalist and freedom fighter, who had introduced Murumbi into Kenyan politics. His revolutionary politics, success with the trade unions and exposure of neo-colonialism made him a marked man. At the time, there had been a growing ideological rift between the clique around Kenyatta who moved closer to the neo-colonialists, and the socialist group who demanded reforms in land ownership, equitable distribution of wealth and fair compensation for the Mau Mau freedom fighters. President Jomo Kenyatta appointed Joseph Murumbi Kenya’s second vice-president, to succeed Oginga Odinga, after a political fallout.  Having served for only six months (May – Dec 1966), Joseph Murumbi’s resigned from the vice presidency citing personal reasons. His resignation is also associated with the elimination of Pinto. From the documents in Murumbi’s collection is a glimpse of Pio Gama Pinto’s life and contribution to Kenyan political history, although farfetched, Pinto is further memorialized in Murumbi’s wish to be buried closest to his grave.

Murumbi Peace Memorial where the grave of Sheila and Joseph Murumbi
are at the City Park Nairobi, Photo: Africa Heritage House, 2013

Following his departure from politics, Joseph Murumbi served as the first chairman of the Kenya Archives Service, and was involved in different businesses but most notable is the African Heritage, a pan-African gallery where artifacts from different parts of Africa were sold, and events such as exhibitions, fashion shows, music concerts, etc. were curated. Murumbi cofounded African Heritage with Alan Donovan, his wife Sheila Murumbi and Santagati in 1972. Alan Donovan was a former USAID field worker who met with Joseph and Sheila Murumbi in 1970 in the exhibition opening of indigenous Turkana artefacts he had collected.

To  the question of Anne Thurston,  who worked for the Kenya National Archives,  “So your collection really grew significantly during your period in government?” Murumbi responds,

Yes, then later on of course, when I left government I was in business. I had more money I was able to spend on things which I found or when I went abroad. And then finally, of course, we opened African Heritage. And that gave me an opportunity to get some good pieces because I had first choice wherever Alan Donovan returned from his buying trips to other African countries or when items would come into the gallery.[2]

After four years of operation, in 1976, the African Heritage gallery burnt down. Subsequently, Donovan and Murumbi had to find a new venue for the African Heritage gallery, and in 1977, Joseph Murumbi sold the government his personal collection and house in Muthaiga, with the intention for the Kenyan government to set up a Murumbi Institute of African Studies there and display the collection in-situ. Joseph Murumbi died in 1990, and his wife Sheila died in 2000. At the time of their death, their wish and intent for the government to set up the research center with their collection as a nucleus had not materialized. The Muthaiga house was left to  deteriorate, together with the collection and archive inside. Initially, all the books, documents, and other collections from the Muthaiga house were removed and transferred to the Kenya National Archives in the city center under the claim to protect them from the deteriorating and leaking roof. But in the end, the house was demolished and the property sold to individuals under suspicious circumstances.

Installation shot of images and items from Joseph Murumbi’s Muthaiga Home
at the Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi
Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum , 2019

Alan Donovan remains significant in the writing of Murumbi’s legacy beyond the business of the African Heritage Ltd, a gallery they ran together. Donovan was also involved in the legal and administrative processes of securing both Sheila and Joseph Murumbi’s collections. Long after Sheila and Joseph Murumbi died, Donovan, with the close friends of Joseph Murumbi, set up the Murumbi Trust in 2003 and looked for funds, as a result of which today parts of the Murumbi collection can be seen in three places: (1) at the Murumbi Gallery of the Kenya National Archives, (2) at the Nairobi Gallery in one of the monuments of the National Museums of Kenya, and (3) The African Heritage House.

The objects and books on display at the (1) Murumbi Gallery of the Kenya National Archives today were those that had been moved from Murumbi’s house in Muthaiga. The collection, however, was left in storage of the Kenya National Archives until 2003 when through the Murumbi Trust and a grant by Ford Foundation they installed the exhibition and display at the Kenya National Archives. What is now called the Murumbi Gallery of the Kenya National Archives opened in 2006.

Sheila Murumbi’s collection was equally disrupted, three years after her death, in 2003, several containers of her collection were already shipped by their ‘next of kin’ in the UK and through the intervention of Alan Donovan and the Ministry of Home affairs their further shipping to the UK was restricted. The stamp collection of Joseph and Sheila Murumbi, and others parts of the collection, after a decade of many legal actions, were released under a Deed of Gift in 2010 to the Kenyan people, to two venues: to the (1) Kenya National Archives and (2) Nairobi Gallery of the National Museums of Kenya, the latter where the exhibition opened in 2013.

In terms of the third location of the Murumbi collection, The African Heritage House, Alan Donovan opened it to the public in 2004, after he closed down the Africa Heritage Ltd in 2003. The Africa Heritage House, in the outskirts of Nairobi, houses some of the objects Joseph and Alan co-owned as African Heritage gallery. Donovan continues to run the Africa Heritage House, and he also published the book My Journey through African Heritage (2005) and edited and published the book on Murumbi, A Path Not Taken (2015).

Thus, assemblies of Joseph and Sheila Murumbi’s collection that were initially designated to be held in well-organized, coherent collections are now presented in fragments. Their legacy and memory also extend to the Murumbi Peace Memorial, where they were laid to rest, and their derelict farm and house in Intona, Transmara.

Murumbi’s Attempt at a National Collection Post Independence

Installation shot of books from Joseph Murumbi collection at the Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum , 2019

Joseph Murumbi speaks of affinity or collecting as something he was drawn towards, often using the word, hobby. As a young person who had been distanced from his home and family to pursue education or work, while exiled in the UK, and even momentarily every time he was on assignment as foreign minister. Making a collection and archive appears as a way in which he created meaning for himself and those around him. Especially meaning around identity, seemingly attempting to respond to questions around indigenous knowledge in Africa, slavery, the era of racial hierarchies he was born of, the African diaspora, and colonialism among others. Those that are now looking at his collection are looking at the meaning Joseph Murumbi articulated and transported across the time or place even though distanced from his experiences. On the other hand, while affirming collecting as a personal occupation are seeds of a secondary responsibility in consideration of a nation’s collective-memory space, which Joseph Murumbi indicate in setting up of the Kenya National Archives and selling his collection to the government.

I’ve reached an age now that I feel that I’ve done my bit in politics, I’ve made a contribution to my country in selling them part of my library, selling my African art and my personal papers, as well as my house…[3]

Murumbi’s personal interest with regard to his collection and library was for the government to build an African Research Centre or Centre for African studies with the collection as the basis and starting point. Apart from all the relatively important books of that period at least for East Africa, Murumbi had archived documentation about the emergency period, anti-colonial movements such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom which he was the secretary, and the congress of People’s Against Imperialism, as well as reports on various conferences like the Organization of African Unity (1965), the Non-Aligned Conference (1964), among others.

Installation shot of books from Joseph Murumbi’s collection at the Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi
Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum , 2019

Considering the time and circumstance in which it was made,  the collection appears and appeals in many ways, first as efforts towards freedom fighting. By virtue of Murumbi being an active participant for the liberation movement from colonial rule and involved in foreign policy in a newly independent African nation-state, the work of building a nation, a collection, and archive may attempt to undo or address the violence of the colonial milieu. The work of the European missionaries, explorers and the British colonial administration in Kenya did not regard, the humanity, natural phenomena, civilizations, and the institutions of those they colonized, defining them through lens of lack. Modernity, and by extension coloniality, was about covering gaps and supremacy in industry, labor, food, water etc.; it generated systems that alienated and excluded the lived experiences, and positioned overcoming the lack or absences as desirable. Many objects that were collected or human remains in this period were collected either for study, in other words scrutiny of the said people or as trophies from violent attacks with a view to gain knowledge/power, or control over the people and their territories. 

The 1960s, immediately after the post-independence period, promised a new trajectory for the African continent, with many nations gaining independence, the shaping up of solidarity among African nations, setting up of institutes of African studies in the continent are among many initiatives. Joseph Murumbi belongs to this era, assuming responsibility and leadership in building/augmenting the collective memory at a time when new dramas were about to take shape. For instance, an onward view post the colonial rule does not consider the complex and oppressive contentions between, say, Kenya and other imperialist/neo-colonial forces that continue to be witnessed through foreign policy and aid. Attempts for self-writing, or self-determination in such a space where the sovereignty of its people has been and continue to be secondary is nearly impossible. Murumbi responds to the manipulation and monopolization of public memory by the colonial estate, the new found state (Kenya), and its discontents.

Archival initiatives are often a response to the monopolization of public memory by the state, and the political effects that flow from such mnemonic power. But attempts at creating an archive are not necessarily supplementing the memory machine of the state. The state archive is only one instance of the archive, they are not the definition of archives, but merely a form. As a particular form, state archives do not exhaust the concept of the archive. The task of creating an archive is neither to replicate nor to mimic state archives but to creatively produce a concept of the archive.[4]

In Kenya, as in many parts of the world at independence was an absence of state organized collections or archives, which is characteristic of the colonial impulse to control narratives. At the time, a lot of old documents were lost, books, manuscripts, and personal papers were obliterated. For instance, files related to the Mau Mau period were either destroyed or sent away by the British government to London, therefore, little material was remaining to build local archives.

Apart from the control of public records by the colonial administration, personal collections were also interfered with by subsequent governments taking power since independence, there many instances when this interference was applied on Joseph Murumbi’s collection. First instance was upon shipping to Kenya at independence from London, some of Murumbi’s books were confiscated and burned by the European police possibly as a punitive censorship measure, wielding power or fear of what contact with knowledge contained these books would mean to larger groups: books by Pan-African journalist and writer, George Padmore, publications on Ghana, and journals from Ghana. Later on, when the negotiations to buy Joseph Murumbi’s collection were ongoing between different interested local and international parties the Chief archivist at the Kenya National Archives used the powers in the legislation that had been initially drawn by Jospeh Murumbi to place a ban on his collection. According to the legislation, the Chief Archivist had powers to ban the export of any documents which are of public interest to the Kenyan government Personal collections and archives of politicians such as Joseph Murumbi thus have constantly been erased because of the possible conflicts contained in it, while they are incomplete, non-representative, and built with personal subjectivities, in them are possible trails to follow, possible chance for further creation, debate or experience.

While his projection of a research center seemed to hold certain promises, it did not move towards shared curiosities or collective local politics. The collection and archive  were produced as an inward movement of items, guarded in confines threatened either physically through catastrophes such as fire or the manipulation by government and regimes in power. Murumbi’s archive and collection was subjected to both tragedies, it is contradictory that the state would be keen to acquire the collection and immediately subvert it using underhanded tactics such as keeping it in storage for over three decades, as well as vandalizing and selling the property.

Outside of Murumbi’s effort, there was no official state archive, what existed were documents in different government departments handed down from the colonial government or private collections of individuals working in the government that were adapted as the state archive. Murumbi’s efforts were first for the creation of a national archive department, and secondly, having made a substantive private collection, to offer it up for the state to build upon. Until today, the state archive is still with gaps. The intended purpose to supplement what was missing in the collective/state archive is not appreciated, instead, the material contained in the archive makes visible the potential instability that can be generated by the archive, therefore its erasure.

Without diminishing the work of Joseph Murumbi, it is also important to think about how much or how far by responding to the constructed public memory or the lack of it that Joseph Murumbi’s collection and archive address itself to the views of the colonialist on Africa, or the elitist political and economic cadre—from wealthy individuals to international investors, companies, and institutions. Even though the archive and collection of Joseph Murumbi is presented as if to be covering gaps created by the violences incurred to Kenyans or Africans, it is also advanced as an accumulation that borrows from the gaze of the same colonial milieu (modernist Euro-American museum practice). 

Installation shot of items from Joseph Murumbi-Africa Heritage collection
at the Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi
Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum , 2019

In relation to the day to day lived experiences, what would the idea of a collection and archive look like? The collection and archives consist of objects whose reading is removed from its day to day use and suspended or positioned as an archive of things wanting to become important or an archive of important signs. Most of the objects were also collected from outside of Kenya, collected from the rest of Africa by Alan Donovan and Joseph Murumbi or re-collected from Europe. This in many ways amplifies the outsiders’ view of what African heritage or African cultural heritage could be. It is narrow in the reflection of Kenya or Africa and its people in the sense that, outside of grand narratives or politics, the lived experiences of the ordinary citizen  are not reflected. As a reflection, its relevance and what has happened to it remain inconsequential to a large majority who are unaware of the collection. It is also possible that the same dynamic operates in reverse, what has happened to the collection and archive as the regimes shift has been inconsequential to the masses or who is aggrieved by the states action and at other times the state reluctance is directly related to the audience the collection could speak to.

Africa Heritage House, Nairobi
Photo: Rose Jepkorir Kiptum, 2018

Another significant perspective of Joseph Murumbi relates to African Heritage, the business and organization he set up in 1972 with Alan Donovan to collect and redistribute art or art objects from the continent. Apart from buying and selling art and art objects, they organized (collected and redistributed) fashion, music, and cultural events. From the start, the African Heritage was set up with the intent to open a shop to sell African arts and crafts with a view to interest the local masses in their ‘cultural heritage’ and to promote local artistic production. However, most of the business was confined to the tourist economy with very little business volume from the locals. Many arguments can be made as to why it might have been like this, and how the issue with distribution and consumption of cultural heritage might have shifted over the years. Currently, there are more gallerists and art dealers, more artists, more artist-led initiatives, and more private not for profit institutions that attempt to redistribute cultural objects and events. On the state level, the Kenya National Museums and the State Department of Culture organize events and registers artists groups and artistic production albeit minimally. Although there have been significant changes, artistic production is still largely towards an elite audience, marketed to the moneyed individuals, and underappreciated for its other potential values. There is also socio-economic and political environment around production, e.g., censorship that continue to influence the making and distribution of art in its varied forms.

The Paradoxes of the Murumbi Legacy

Fundamental to the question of memory is to think how objects exchanged and transacted through the African Heritage gallery could have been possible carriers of memory. The relationship between memory, and how the narratives are organized and displayed at the Kenya National Archives, the Nairobi Gallery, or at the African Heritage House make a case on the question of representation. These exhibitions use stamps, books, artworks, photographs or objects used as clothing or as weapons as elements to illustrate, animate, and endorse narratives. The narratives of the formation of a nation, the emergence of the modern art from the 1960s into 1990s, a narrative of an already absent “traditional” way of life or even of the peculiar life and character of Joseph Murumbi among others. In the exhibition format, what is written, and said, or held within an archive to operate as memory is subject to transcription, translation, and interpretation. How does one read into it?  What do the gaps in the collection mean for how we can read it today?What knowledge are we applauding? What cross breeding is there in the archive? Does the collection remain illegible and inaccessible to many?

The character of Alan Donovan and the constant presence of support from the USA, in funding or kind is visible, possibly because of his proximity as an American citizen and the fact that there are hardly any opportunities for funding from Kenyan institutions for this kind of work. Apart from the grant by Ford Foundation, it is notable that his choice for organizations or individuals to take up from the work he has done only seem to be from America. Previously, in an excerpt from the book, My Journey through African Heritage Alan Donovan  noted,

At this moment, if I should die, the house would go to the American Women’s Association as a foundation in perpetuity. I am sure this news would come as a great shock to most of the members as this plan was set up a decade ago, when I thought I would have enough money in my old age to leave a substantial stipend to fund the house until it became self-sustaining. But the same luck which bedevilled Joe Murumbi in his past years has followed me.” [5]

Leading up to 2015 when, the house was gazetted as a national site and monument by the Kenya National Museum, while the African Heritage House had been marked for demolition to pave way for high speed rail. As an institution built on private funding and personal initiative, it is difficult to expect, make any demands, or to project a collective future to it. Although the gazetting by Kenyan government acknowledges the work, it is still in the discretion of Alan Donovan or the administrative board of African Heritage House to determine how to run its business and who can be their audience. In 2017, it was reported in the local newspaper, the Daily Nation, that the African Heritage House was gifted to Barack and Michelle Obama Foundation.[6] Whether this works out or not, the gazetting of the African Heritage House means the collections, legacy of both Alan Donovan and the Murumbis’ will hopefully, not only be left but also be accessible to Kenyans and Africa at large.

In conclusion, there are many discrepancies and contradictions in considering Joseph Murumbi’s archive and collection as well his contribution and efforts towards a state archive or public memory. The order, power differences, and the conditions under which these collections and archives were collated reveal the challenges of what it means to build a national collection in Kenya under and after colonial rule. It is apparent that there is no common ground in the vision, use, or understanding for a state archive or source for collective public memory, which have also evolved with the changes in each political regime and are possibly going to further change with time.

The public memory is continually being made by an accumulation of creations and re-imaginations, with the most visible and calculable actions designated by state authority. By taking up certain roles and occupying spaces, whether the state intends for them to do so or not, Joseph Murumbi may have also manipulated and monopolized the public memory. These are necessary ways in which the seepage occurs in systems that are grand in scale and tasking for individuals or single units to contend. The challenge remains on how to build an orientation or frontier in which the translation is made to the public; to build an archive is to establish an open and active relationship with memory and its politics. The example of Joseph Murumbi is only one case, where, as the state relented in formalizing, institutionalizing, and filling gaps in its archive, individuals made an insertion. It is a case for maybe artists or hackers to build upon and to animate it towards other significations.

About the Author:

Rose Jepkorir Kiptum is a curator working with artists and others from Nairobi. Some of the selected work I have made include; Burden of Memory: CoNsidering German Colonial History in Africa (Yaounde, 2019), From Here to When (2019), Wanakuboeka Feelharmonic (2018), Naijographia: A play on travelling time and place (2017), and 28 Words in Maputo (2015) among others. Jepkorir has participated in various workshops, residencies and research projects including; We are (not) one – Artists, Curators, Institutions and Diversity in Latin America, the inaugural Goethe-Institut, Nairobi curatorial workshop, and is an alumni of the Asiko International Art School.


[1] Kenya Law Report. The Public Archives and Documentation Service Act.(Nairobi: National Council for Law Reporting, Nairobi, Revised Edition 2012).

[2] Alan Donovan, A Path Not Taken – The Story of Joseph Murumbi, Africa’s Greatest Private Cultural Collector and Kenya’s Second Vice President. (Nairobi: Franis Kolbe Press, 2015), 262.

[3]Alan Donovan, A Path Not Taken, 271.

[4] (short for Public Access Digital Media Archive): „10 Thesis on the Archive”, Beirut, 2010.

[5] Alan Donovan, My Journey through African Heritage (Nairobi: East African Education Publishers, 2005).

[6] Margaretta WA Gacheru. “Famous African Heritage House Gifted to Obama for Art Museum”, Daily Nation., September 8, 2017. Retrieved from

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