The Lamu Museum is a cultural heritage site located in the World Heritage Site of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya. The museum is managed by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and is one of five regional museums. The museum was completed in 1892 and is one of the most authentic Stone Veranda Buildings in the country which gives visitors a glimpse of the traditional setup of a Swahili home. It represents the radical 19th-century shift from the traditional vernacular Swahili stone houses to a new architectural style influenced by European and Indian merchants. Today, the Lamu Museum houses the ethnographic material of the cultural history of the northern Swahili landscape, including clothing, jewellery, furniture, manuscripts, musical instruments, maritime materials, and archaeological finds. For the local community, the museum represents the core centre of Swahili heritage and Kenyan national identity. The institution has developed a strong bond with the local community and their cultural life. In fact, the museum runs a number of educational programmes for schools; its educational outreach programmes cater to the 15,000 students in the Lamu County and serves as the main resource centre for researchers and scholars investigating Swahili culture.
In 2019, our partner on the ground Mohammed Ali Mwenje communicated increasing concerns about the conditions of the Lamu Museum. The building's structure was suffering from a combination of threats: fire, flooding, terrorism and intentional attacks, and rodent infestations.
Of them all, fire was the greatest threat. The risk of fire was aggravated by the vulnerable electrical systems as well as the traditional building structures, made of natural and highly combustible material. If no preventive actions were taken, any such disaster could lead to the loss of irreplaceable objects, with a disruptive impact to the cultural history and identity of the local community. In response, Mohammed proposed an emergency preparedness plan with the aim to protect the building and its collection.
Within the framework of our collaboration with the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, together we supported the emergency preparedness plan developed by Mohammed together with the NMK-Lamu staff. CER and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, through its ‘Patrimonies’ funding initiative, support the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in crisis regions. Both organisations have a history of preventing and minimizing the loss of cultural heritage. In 2019, we launched our first joint call for proposals specifically aimed at Emergency Preparedness for Cultural Heritage under Threat. In the past, CER and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung have jointly supported numerous projects, with scopes varying from fire protection in museums and buildings in Bhutan, India, and Zimbabwe to disaster management plans and the implementation of measures to reduce the risk of flooding in a museum in Kenya. Both organisations believe that preparedness is key to protecting culture in crisis.
The programme has been instrumental in initiating discourse among the local community about the risks associated with natural hazards and other emergencies.
The emergency preparedness plan developed by Mohammed together with the NMK-Lamu staff tackled many forms of anticipatory action: capacity building for museum staff and community members to create emergency marshals, a preparedness plan on disaster risk preparedness in collaboration with staff and community. Infrastructural measures were taken with the installation of fire control and security equipment such as a marine pump as a firefighting system, fire extinguishers, connection to the national tsunami early warning system, smoke detectors, fire sirens, security cameras, and metal scanners. Lastly, sensitization activities for official security agencies such as firefighters and police forces were provided for better cooperation in heritage safeguarding.
During the second phase of support towards the building's infrastructure, the risk of fire became increasingly apparent. Following the advice from local fire experts, one of the key installations later proposed was the construction of a holding well to constantly hold a reserve of water for use in the event of a fire emergency. The well was constructed between the Lamu Museum and the Rodha Mosque for both of their use in case of fire emergencies. This was an unexpected, but greatly unifying, outcome to the project. Due to the shared well, and process thereof, the Rodha Mosque committee and the surrounding communities have become robust partners of the Lamu Museum and their support can be depended upon in the unfortunate event of a disaster.
The shared efforts and resources, as well as the workshops to sensitize both the community and fire brigades on the need to safeguard their local cultural heritage, fostered important social cohesion, community resilience, and cultural continuity among people in the region. The Detailed Disaster Risk Management plan that the Lamu Museum prepared in collaboration with local stakeholders set an incredible precedent for the local community. Now there is a deeper understanding of what it means to their community to protect their culture from crisis, and how beneficial it is to work together in a cross-sectoral response.
The disaster risk exercise at the Lamu Museum was the first of its kind within the [region] and has served to inspire other state agencies and private businesses to conduct emergency drills in collaboration with surrounding community groups
It will also serve as a model for other cultural heritage properties facing similar risks along the Kenyan coast and elsewhere in the country thus contributing significantly towards regional efforts in safeguarding heritage against disasters. Lastly, this project further proves the importance of preparedness for cultural emergency response. To provide first aid to cultural heritage under threat in an adequate and inclusive way, CER ensures the capacity and infrastructure are in place to support our approach in facilitating locally-led responses to cultural emergencies. Although completed in 2019, this project and its effects live on.
We are grateful to Gerda Henkel Stiftung for this coordinated and joint support in Kenya. In the past, CER and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung have jointly supported numerous projects, with scopes varying from fire protection in museums and buildings in Bhutan, India, and Zimbabwe to disaster management plans and the implementation of measures to reduce the risk of flooding in a museum in Kenya.