Hannah McLean


Research title: Memory and materiality in British-colonial detention camps in Kenya

Research Summary

Following the end of the Mau Mau Uprising, the British-colonial government in Kenya dismantled over fifty detention camps used to detain Mau Mau suspects, only a handful left standing to be repurposed as prisons, schools, and hospitals. In this process of transformation, confinement cells have been repurposed as dormitories and storage rooms, and barbed wire and brick kilns left abandoned as waste. With thousands of Colonial Office files destroyed or concealed as part of Operation Legacy, the realities of the camps are now largely restricted to the memories of the few, ageing survivors: there is thus an urgency to document and confront this past before it slips from living memory. My project examines the remains of these detention camps as lived heritage sites through archaeological survey methods and a community-based heritage mapping project. I will conduct an archaeological survey of three former work camps now used as schools: Aguthi, Mweru, and Othaya. During walkover surveys of the sites, I will record the materials and dimensions of repurposed structures, loose material or objects, and traces in the land itself, such as the remains of trenches. The mapping project will involve oral history interviews with survivors of Aguthi, Mweru, and Othaya. Interviewees will be asked to draw maps of how they remember the camps, as well as explorative and open questions regarding their experiences.

My research questions ask:

  • What material remnants survive of British-colonial detention camps in Kenya, and what can we learn about daily life and experiences in the camps? How and why have certain camps been repurposed for other uses?

  • To what extent can survivor recollections of British-colonial detention camps be used to further understand the materiality and structure(s) of the camps? To what extent can survivor recollections be considered ‘complete’ or ‘accurate’ and why?

  • How should conservation and memorialisation of the detention camps be approached? Do the detention camps in fact need conserving or memorialising tangibly?

The significance of the sites will be considered within a broader theoretical framework grounded in critical heritage studies, memory studies and postcolonial theory. The project will lead to the expansion of public knowledge on anti-colonial heritage in Kenya and beyond, through collaboration with the Museum of British Colonialism (MBC), and universities and heritage organisations in Kenya and the UK.

Research interests:
Contemporary archaeology, Conflict archaeology, Critical heritage studies, Empire, Memorialisation, Public archaeology, Memory, Oral history, African diaspora, Community archaeology


  • McLean, H. (2021). Identity, Belonging, and "Dead Silence": Towards a Prospectus for Change in the Representation of Black Residents in English Historic Houses, 1714-1837. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, 9(3), p. 215-238. DOI:10.1080/21619441.2021.1904737.


  • SGSAH AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Scholarship, 2021/22
  • British Council and Heritage Alliance Travel Grant Scheme, April 2019
  • UCL Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences Dean’s List for Excellence, 2019
  • UCL Institute of Archaeology Masters Prize, 2019


2022. Emergency: Creatively Communicating the Archaeology and Heritage of the Mau Mau Uprising. Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) 2022, NOVA University of Lisbon. 10 November.

2022. Ithaki na wiathi: Memorialising Mau Mau in contemporary Kenya. Theoretical Archaeology Group, University of Edinburgh. 17 December.


Archaeology in the Modern World (Level 1)

Additional Information


  • MA Public Archaeology, University College London, 2018-19. Distinction. Thesis title: Identity, belonging, and ‘dead silence’: towards a prospectus for change in the representation of Black residents in English historic houses, 1714-1837. Supervised by Prof. Kevin MacDonald.

  • BSc Archaeology, University College London, 2015-18. Upper Second-Class Honours (2:1). Dissertation title: How does the public perceive the origins of the English identity, and how has archaeology contributed? Supervised by Dr. Gabriel Moshenska.


  • Team member, Museum of British Colonialism