A Night (or 90) at the Museum

By David Patterson
October 30, 2014

To be completely honest, I spend days, not nights in a museum. Nonetheless, for the past month I’ve been working in the fossil and archaeological collections of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in Nairobi. My dissertation work attempts to better understand the paleolandscape at East Turkana, northern Kenya between 2 and 1.4 million years ago (Ma), so this institution is far from unfamiliar. However, as with most field researchers, museums often represent a centralized location to deposit all of the fossils collected from distant outcrops. The primary difficultly with this approach is that we never seem to have sufficient time to catalog and analyze the fossils we collect. Thus, I decided it was crucial to my dissertation to incorporate multiple extended stays in Nairobi working at the NMK on fossils I’ve collected over the past four field seasons as well as those collected from East Turkana over the past five decades.

At first, this task seemed monumental (and it still does to some extent). The NMK is divided into several different departments. The fossils that I’m interested in are housed in the Departments of Paleontology and Archaeology. One difficulty, as with most museums, is that fossils collected from the same outcrops are often housed in different departments of the larger institution. This intra-institution curation variability can be attributed to the frequently disparate nature of research questions during fossil collection. In the case of the NMK, fossils collected from sites associated with hominin behavior are housed in the Archaeology Department, while those originating from the broader landscape are housed in the Paleontology Department.

Because the questions associated with my dissertation are dependent upon both archaeological and paleontological collections, my primary objective for this trip was to create a common dataset to be used to place hominin ecology within the context of the broader mammalian community at East Turkana. Now, this may seem like a somewhat simple task, but I assure you that it will require the entirety of my stay at the NMK. There are several variables to consider when uniting these somewhat distinct assemblages. First, because some of these fossils were collected nearly fifty years ago, much like the organisms themselves, the taxonomy (i.e., the naming of organisms) has evolved over the years. Second, researchers often have differing opinions regarding the morphological variability contained within a particular species. To minimize the effect of these variables, my approach is to be especially conservative when attaching a species-level name to a particular specimen. But, as you can see, this process can be extremely tedious when working through multiple large collections and researchers have been known to go somewhat loopy after long stints in museums.

Fortunately, the NMK is always a hub of activity with many different forms of distraction to restore sanity. One such distraction during my stay at the museum was the NMK Science Expo. This festival happens every other year at the museum and over the course of a couple days, the NMK opens its doors to the broader public and creates wonderful displays and hands-on demonstrations of the latest interesting research happening within its departments. Naturally, this event served as the perfect means for me to separate myself from identifying and cataloging fossils.

Students from across Kenya waiting for the opening of the NMK Science Expo

The Science Expo takes place in the large, open courtyard of the museum. An elaborate ribbon cutting ceremony follows a series of speeches from dignitaries and museum directors, including Dr. Kyalo Manthi of the Department of Paleontology. This officially opens the event and students and dignitaries alike line up in droves to make their way through each department’s display, while along the way talking to directly to researchers and learning the basic techniques of each field. At the Department of Vertebrate Zoology tent resided a life-size recreation of a bongo (a large, forest dwelling antelope), a lion, and lastly an African wild dog. School children are naturally drawn to this tent, but more importantly, all of these animals are highly endangered in Kenya and it provides researchers with an opportunity to discuss the conservation status of each with the broader public. Immediately adjacent to the Vertebrate Zoology Tent was the Botany Department exhibit. Although there were many different components, one of the most interesting was the portion that detailed small-scale farming and its financial benefits to local communities. One example was the incredibly innovative method devised by Judith Anyango Obiero for cultivating oyster mushrooms to be sold to five-star restaurants in Nairobi.  

Ribbon cutting to open the NMK Science Expo
Judith Anyango Obiero and his unique technique for growing oyster mushrooms

Within a few feet of bongo was the Department of Earth Sciences (within which Archaeology and Paleontology Departments are housed) display. Naturally, this is where I spent a majority of my time. In addition to a real-time demonstration of 3-D printing and scanning (www.africanfossils.org), students have the opportunity to participate in a full-size excavation of fossils and artifacts. If you’ve ever worked in Kenya, you know that the region is home to some of the most talented fossil-finders in the world and many were on hand throughout the day to work with the public and share stories of fossil finds from far and distant outcrops. In addition, the exhibit contained an interactive display that asked: “What does it mean to be human?”. By the end of the day, the board was filled with answers like, “to make and use tools”, “to control your environment” and “the use of complex language”. I know, quite impressive. Lastly, Dr. Emmanual Ndiema was on hand throughout the event to discuss the importance of cultivating and maintaining cultural heritage in Kenya. This task was made much easier by large displays detailing the geographic position of sites ranging from the Miocene to the Holocene across Kenya and will undoubtedly lead to increased tourism in the future.

Mock excavation at the Department of Earth Sciences display

As you can see, this event permitted a much-needed break to the monotony of identifying and cataloging fossils (plus the Rolling Stones discography was getting a bit repetitive...). As this stint at the museum nears the halfway point, I feel rejuvenated and reminded of the reason that many students in CASHP venture to Kenya every summer for fieldwork. Fossils and artifacts from this region provide rare glimpses into the morphology, behavior and ecology of our ancestors throughout our evolutionary history. Although museum work can be somewhat tedious, the NMK and its affiliated researchers consistently provide one of the most wonderful and productive environments for data analysis and collection.