Restoring the archive of the Nairobi Railway Museum

In 2018, founder Tayiana Chao was awarded a grant by the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) setup in 2004 to protect and preserve vulnerable archives all around the world. So far, the programme has supported 350 projects in 90 countries all over the world. Administered by the British Library with support from the Arcadia fund, work on restoring the railway museum archive will begin in early 2019, here she talks about why she applied for the grant and her vision for the upcoming project.

It is a great honour to be a recipient of this year’s Endangered Archives Grant, in November 2017 I submitted an application to the EAP for funds to preserve and restore the archive of the Nairobi Railway Museum. With more than 5000 items in its collection including photos, letters, books and maps the railway museum collection is unique within the East African region, spanning all the way from the 1890’s through to the early 2000’s. Its uniqueness is not only pegged on the type of material it contains, but also the period. Historically, the Uganda railway is considered one of the greatest engineering and infrastructural challenges of the region, not least due to the unforgiving landscape, man-eating lions and tropical weather. However, aside from the infrastructural aspect, the social effects and ramifications of the railway were and still are felt far and wide within the region.

Prior to its construction a number of surveys were conducted, to establish the feasibility of the project. These surveys produced maps, drawings and photographs that today constitute one of the few visual repositories of the East African region prior to industrialization. Much of the photographic evidence that backs research and information about late 19th and early 20th century Kenya, is obtained from the railway museum archives.

Its photographic collection which is largely still intact is of use to academics, writers, film makers and historians interested in reconstructing the East African landscape at the turn of the century.  Although the collection predominantly contains information on what is today Kenya, there is also evidence of material documenting regarding the construction of the first railway in Tanzania and photographs taken of railway progress in Uganda.

To speak of the unique nature of this collection is important enough to undertake this project, but for me, this collection is also deeply personal. In 2013 as a student at the JKUAT Voi Campus, I embarked on a project to document Kenya’s abandoned railway stations that were at risk of falling apart or being demolished. More than a century after it was completed, there I was, a young girl, with a camera and a dream (the resources came later).

Over the next three years I went around the country photographing the stations and interacting with hundreds of people who used/lived around the railway. As I sought to capture the present state of the stations, the history of the railway was also very intriguing to me and it is through this that I began to frequent and spend hours on end in the railway museum archive. The space itself was an archive in the sense that it stored historical documents, but it wasn’t an archive in the ways that those documents were stored. At a time when cultural institutions grapple with limited funding and resources, the archive at the railway museum was in a poor state as the documents and photographs were exposed to dust, moisture, humidity and environmental facts enough to destroy or threaten their integrity.  Considering that majority of the collection from the late 19th and early 20th century is unique and few to no copies exist, it was extremely pertinent to preserve these documents in a proper archival setting where they can be stored and access with the appropriate care.

The EAP programme provided the perfect opportunity to restore this archive and in early 2019 we will begin to restore this archive in a bid to preserve the integrity of these documents. This pilot project will involve, cleaning the archive, conserving the documents, cataloging the collection, training museum staff on how to manage and care for the collection, transferring the documents into appropriate storage and a sample digitization exercise where permissible. I look forward to starting this project and contributing towards the preservation of such an important collection. Updates will be posted on social channels and on the website.

With generous thanks to the EAP programme, the British Library and the Arcadia fund.

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