South London and Mombasa, Kenya exhibitions commemorate forgotten African archaeologists

Two new exhibitions – at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London and Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya – commemorate the many African Kenyan archaeologists whose names are absent from archaeological archives.

Ode to the Ancestors, opening at the Horniman on 8 December, is an exhibition of archival photographs from the 1920s to the present day, celebrating both African heritage and the contributions of Africans to their own histories. A sister exhibition featuring the same images is being held by National Museums of Kenya, at Fort Jesus.

Ode to the Ancestors was curated by musician, filmmaker and curator, Sherry Davis. Sherry is reclaiming her family’s history, inspired by her grandfather who played an important role excavating ancient monuments in Kenya from the 1940s to 70s, but whose name – along with those of his peers – is nowhere to be found at the sites.

Sherry Davis says: ‘My late grandfather Karisa Ndurya was one of the first Africans to excavate ancient monuments in Kenya. He worked as a foreman during the colonial period, alongside a British archaeologist, James Kirkman. Kirkman and other Europeans are acknowledged all over sites like Fort Jesus but no Africans have their names commemorated on the walls.

‘Ode to the Ancestors at the Horniman and its sister exhibition at Fort Jesus are correcting the narrative, unearthing the important work of Africans around built heritage, celebrating their contributions, and finally giving them the credit they deserve.’

Sherry, a former Community Action Researcher at the Horniman, has spent much of 2022 researching the names of Kenyan archaeologists, conservators and heritage professionals, in partnership with photographer and researcher Okoko Ashikoye and colleagues at National Museums of Kenya.

The historic images and stories of African archaeologists are presented in the exhibition alongside new works by a group of young people with African and Caribbean heritage in the UK. Their exhibits – including collages, poems and a video – express what reclaiming African history means to them. Students in Kenya have also undertaken research and their findings will be available online.

The exhibition also includes a small display of ancient objects from the Horniman collection, excavated in 1931 from a site called Gamble’s Cave in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Gamble’s Cave was researched by Louis Leakey, and Leakey’s name is associated with these objects in the Horniman’s records; the names of the many Kenyan excavators and archaeologists working with him are, as yet, unknown.

Ode to the Ancestors opens at the Horniman from 8 December, 10am-5.30pm, and is free to visit.