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Towards a Museum of British Colonialism: Capturing and Curating the Hidden Histories of the Mau Mau in the UK and Kenya
Towards a Museum of British Colonialism: Capturing and Curating the Hidden Histories of the Mau Mau in the UK and Kenya
82 backers pledged £5,186 to help bring this project to life.

About

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Project Background 

The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952 - 1960) was one of the most brutal episodes of British colonial history, but remains one of the least well known and understood, both in the UK and in Kenya. 

Historians estimate that there were more than 100 detention camps, work camps and emergency villages set up and operated by the British Colonial Government during the State of Emergency from 1952 - 1960. The British Colonial Government used this network of camps - referred to as the ‘pipeline’ - to detain and torture hundreds of thousands of Kenyans with the aim of extracting confessions of allegiance to the Mau Mau independence movement. 

From the coastal towns of Lamu to the northern areas of Lodwar, these centres could be found all over the country. Yet 55 years after independence, knowledge and memory of these camps has been almost entirely wiped out of national memory in both Kenya and the UK. 

To locate, access and retrieve information on them requires extensive and laborious research. As a result, the vast majority of people do not know where they were, what they looked like or - for some generations - that they ever existed.We believe the absence of easily accessible information on these camps has led to a troubling erasure of history, the repercussions of which are keenly felt in both the UK and Kenya. As a team, we have already undertaken significant preliminary research to unearth details of these sites. 

Map of Detention Centres Throughout Kenya in the 1950s

Now, with these foundations laid and with the last members of the Mau Mau only growing older, the next stage is to actively and collaboratively document, curate, and share this history in both the UK and Kenya through a fully fledged, part digital / part physical installation that breathes life into lost and concealed historical material. 

Interactive Digital Display
Interactive Digital Display

Technically, we will use archival and present day documents, footage and photographs to envision how the camps might have looked and thereafter create 3D digital reconstructions showing their physical structures and outlines.

How will we create digital reconstructions?

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On selecting a point on the map, visitors will be able to view archival photos of the camp, zoom into a 3D digital reconstruction of some of the centres and listen to an audio narration that describes life in them. 

Accessing Stories and Experiences from Kiambu via Interactive Map
Accessing Stories and Experiences from Kiambu via Interactive Map

Our plan is to develop this exhibition collaboratively in Kenya and the UK and to showcase it as widely as possible. 

Through this we hope to: 

  • bear witness to the events that passed and the legacy of colonialism;
  • bring communities together to share and document experiences there has been little opportunity to speak of openly;
  • broaden awareness of and engagement with these aspects of our shared history; 
  • address contemporary and abiding issues such as the restitution of archival records and access to historical documents; 
  • develop significant and powerful ways of working across countries to build fuller, more honest collective memory. 

We see the exhibition as a powerful and important piece in and of itself, but also a crucial proof of concept for the ongoing work of our museum. 

We hope it will provide a working model that will influence and inspire positive engagement between the UK and former colonies and contribute to a permanent creative and collaborative legacy, both inside and outside the UK.

But Who Were the Mau Mau? 

The Mau Mau was a complex and indeterminate group that coalesced around their commitment to the restoration of ithaka na winathi - or land and freedom - for people of Kenya and, thus, an end to British Colonial Rule.

Popularised as the Mau Mau in the 1940s, this groups was - in many ways - the culmination of opposition to British Imperialism that had been rising in Kenya for many decades. Unsettled by the Mau Mau’s increasingly violent attacks against white settlers through the late 1940s and early 1950s, the British Colonial Administration outlawed the Mau Mau as a terrorist organisation and, in 1952, declared a State of Emergency.

The State of Emergency, it was hoped, would allow the administration to enact a swift crackdown on the rebels and retain control of one of their most precious and coveted colonies. 

Contrary to expectations, what played out was a protracted and dirty war that was to become one of the most brutal, violent, and shameful episodes in British colonial history, characterised by detention without trial, forced labour, villagisation, torture ‘without respite’ and unlawful killing.

In 1960 the Emergency came to an end. Three years later Kenya declared independence from the British. To conceal the extent of their repressive measures, members of the British Colonial Administration destroyed and removed vast quantities of documentation detailing the most egregious acts of state-sanctioned torture, detention, and abuse. The Mau Mau remained outlawed as a terrorist organisation until 2003 and the era of the Emergency was consigned to the ‘forgettory’ of British history. 

In 2011, with the law banning the Mau Mau as a terrorist organisation lifted, and extensive and groundbreaking work by academics to support their claims, a small group of veterans lodged a compensation claim for torture and mistreatment against the British Government.

During the course of this trial, tens of thousands of unlawfully ‘migrated’ and concealed files supporting these claims came to light as a result of a court order. 

The British Government had been knowingly and willfully denied the existence of these files for over half a century. On the basis of the evidence before them - the British Government agreed to an out of court settlement to the tune of £20 million.

Susan and Mary with Gitu wa Kahengeri, Chairman of the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association
Susan and Mary with Gitu wa Kahengeri, Chairman of the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association

What’s Next? 

Despite the information released in the trial, details of the camps, detention centres and experiences of those who fought with the Mau Mau or were affected by the Emergency remain poorly documented and hard to access, almost entirely erased from collective memory, particularly in the UK. Our aim is to build on the work done to date to collectively and collaboratively restore this history in a creative, interactive, easily accessible format that will engage audiences, enhance understanding and affect change in the UK, Kenya and beyond.

As Kickstarter funds will only be released if we hit our target (!!), we are setting this at £5,000. This amount of money would allow us to continue with research, documentation and online information sharing. Critically, it would also allow us to work with veterans to document, archive and share their stories and experiences, the first step towards a resource of this type relating to the Mau Mau Emergency. Within this budget, we would also be able to purchase the basic digital equipment required to begin sharing some of this work via physical exhibitions, and cover expenses to rent an exhibition space in Nairobi. 

As with most things, however, there is much, much more we can do. Our hope is eventually to take these exhibitions to different parts of Kenya and invite members of the community to engage, respond and feed into the work. We are also determined to exhibit this work widely in the UK, develop and facilitate collaborations and exchanges between young people in the UK and Kenya and invite young people from other former colonies into the conversation to exchange thoughts and experiences in relation to our shared histories.

We are therefore more than happy to accept substantial donations far beyond our £5k target! :) So if you are thinking of giving big, please don't hold back! We can do great things with the money and are naturally more than happy to accept funds for specific activities should you so wish!

Who we are

The Museum of British Colonialism is a start-up museum founded by a group of individuals in the UK and Kenya comprising Olivia Windham Stewart (London, UK), Susan Kibaara (Nairobi, Kenya), Mary Njoroge (Nairobi, Kenya) and Tayiana Chao (London, UK / Nairobi, Kenya). 

 Since January 2018 this collective has been researching and devising content and media relating to British Colonialism in Kenya, with a specific focus on the Mau Mau Emergency. In recent months our team has expanded to include British and Kenyan operational, fundraising and social media volunteers in both countries, with a range of backgrounds including archaeology, anthropology, research, legal, film and media.

Risks and challenges

Addressing hidden, contentious, or undesirable histories comes with inherent risks. Particularly in a situation where the legacies of that history are felt in the present day. To minimise the risks that come with addressing this history - particularly in relation to the role of certain tribes in the Emergency - we have chosen to focus first on building and restoring awareness relating to the network of camps - their locations; their structures; their ‘position’ in the pipeline; the experiences of those who were detained there - and to document and share the experiences of the veterans still alive in Kenya today in relation to that network of camps.

We will not be focusing on the legacies of certain individuals still living, or the role of certain tribes but will allow the presence of the camps and the experiences of the veterans to speak for themselves. We do however have a mixed team of Kenyans living in Kenya, British people living in Britain, Kenyans living in the UK and British people living in Kenya. Through this diverse team - not to mention the ongoing dialogue between us - we hope to be able to anticipate certain responses and engage in relevant debates in a constructive and informed manner. The fact that the case has been heard in court and a settlement agreed in part also protects the team from certain risks associated with addressing uncomfortable histories.

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