May 28, 2021 to August 29, 2021

Invisible Inventories

A Critique of Kenyan Collections in Western Museums

Countless Kenyans lost their lives attempting to resist colonial oppression during the almost 70 years of British colonial rule (1895 to 1963). At the same time, thousands of historical Kenyan cultural and art objects were removed from the country to be sold to museums and private collectors throughout Europe and the USA.

Tens of thousands of Kenyan artefacts have since became part of European and North American museum collections. What does their absence mean for Kenya? And what does their presence mean for these museums?

Since 2018, answers to these questions have been sought by the International Inventories Programme (IIP), a research and database project of the Goethe Institute initiated by artists from different countries. After identifying historical Kenyan cultural objects held by cultural institutions around the world, IIP brought together a constellation of artist collectives and museums from Kenya, France and Germany in an effort to disseminate African perspectives on restitution – perspectives that are rarely represented in international discourse. The result is intensive interdisciplinary collaboration between the Kenyan National Museum in Nairobi, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt am Main, the artist collectives “The Nest” and “SHIFT” as well as other partners.

The most important tools to emerge from this collaboration are a database that currently contains 32.501 historical cultural Kenyan objects from thirty institutions worldwide, several publications and the joint international exhibition Invisible Inventories: A Critique of Kenyan Collections in Western Museums.

Under the collective artistic direction of the IIP team, the exhibition tours three locations in varying versions in 2021: from 18 March to 30 May 2021, it was shown at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, from 28 May to 29 August 2021, it appears at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne and from 6 October 2021 onwards at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main.

The exhibition presents the results of two years of collaborative scholarly-artistic research into Kenyan artefacts located outside their home country, exploring the theme of absence through art, activism, scholarly enquiry and study of Kenyan cultural objects. Invisible Inventories: A Critique of Kenyan Collections in Western Museums attempts to address the asymmetry of shared history and the painful relationship that underlies it. The exhibition draws from the diverse experiences of the project’s participants, attempting to approach the shared history together.

The Kenyan holdings from Cologne were intentionally missing from the exhibition in Nairobi. Their absence was represented by staged empty showcases. In Cologne, the IIP curatorial team presents the entire collection of 82 Kenyan objects acquired by the RJM between 1905 and 2006. Most of these pieces have never been exhibited before. The staging alludes to the objects’ existence in the museum’s repository, where the IIP team found them in 2019. For some of them, scholars from Nairobi have for the first time jointly compiled comprehensive biographies that make clear the significance these artefacts still have today for Kenya and for members of the Kenyan diaspora in Germany.

In addition to the Kenyan exhibits, the project involves artworks by the collectives “The Nest” and “SHIFT”. The Kenyan artists and filmmakers Jim Chuchu and Njoki Ngumi (“The Nest”) have visualised excerpts from the object database to make clear the incredible scope of the data collected on the 32,000 objects located in institutions outside Kenya. A seemingly endless, continuous band of object labels wraps around the RJM from the outside and continues into the exhibition spaces.

Simon Rittmeier from the SHIFT collective explores the museum as an institution in the process of decolonisation in two works: Takeover, in collaboration with the musician Richard Ojijo, and Topography of Loss, in collaboration with Sam Hopkins. Moreover, Sam Hopkins and Marian Nur Goni (SHIFT) present a sound installation on the diverse stories of the so-called “Man Eaters of Tsavo”: the two legendary man-eating lions succeeded in blocking the entire British imperial machinery in East Africa at the turn of the century. Today, the two stuffed animals are on display in Chicago. Many Kenyans regard them as national treasures that must be returned to Kenya.


Participating artists and scholars

 Jim Chuchu, Julia Friedel, Njeri Gachihi, Frauke Gathof, Clara Himmelheber, Sam Hopkins, Lydia Nafula, Leonie Neumann, Njoki Ngumi, Marian Nur Goni, Philemon Nyamanga, George Juma Ondeng’, Richard Ojijo, Simon Rittmeier, with the support of Leonie Chima Emeka, Niklas Obermann and Jane Pauline Waithera

Opening video


Further information on the project, see or


The International Inventories Programme is a project of the Goethe Institute, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in Nairobi, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM) in Cologne, the Weltkulturen Museum (WKM) in Frankfurt am Main and the artist collectives “The Nest” (Kenya) and “SHIFT” (Germany/France). The exhibition project “Invisible Inventories” is funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.