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Celebrating Niger’s rich heritage with design that instills national pride

May 06, 2021

By Percy “Rebel” Roberts

Designing a museum and cultural center in West Africa is a collaborative effort that rejoices in the past and embraces the future

This article first appeared as “Celebrating Niger’s rich heritage” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 11.

There’s a place near Agadez, Niger, that’s extraordinary. Visitors can walk in the desert to certain sites there and literally see dinosaur bones coming up out of the sand without any excavation.  

From there, one can hike 30 yards to the east and find a burial site where an ancient village once stood. There’s nothing quite as educational—or breathtaking—as seeing evidence of prehistoric life preserved undisturbed right next to traces of the places where people chose to live. Much of what is now desert in Niger was once a green valley full of animal life and human activity. The West African nation of Niger possesses rich anthropological and paleontological resources—but we rarely hear about them, and very few see these places in person.  

Over the past three decades, scientists have unearthed significant archaeological and paleontological finds in Niger. But with little appropriate infrastructure to house precious items, the artifacts are rarely displayed. Stantec is now designing two new cultural attractions for Niger’s cultural and paleontological treasures for the NigerHeritage project with the goal of creating compelling learning environments that will attract more tourism, encourage investment, and increase national pride. 

Musée du Fleuve in Niamey, Niger.

The NigerHeritage initiative is very important to our design team as it aligns with our values and the range of diverse skillsets that identify us a global design firm. This project is emblematic of our commitment at Stantec to collaborative design with community and passion for improving quality of life. 

Long-term partner 

Today, we’re building on a 25-year relationship with Dr. Paul Sereno, a paleontologist, archaeologist, and professor at the University of Chicago and Explorer in Residence at National Geographic. He’s passionate about science and culture. He roams the globe looking for big fossil finds in remote places. His work knits together the origins of life on the planet with cultural anthropology and along with scholars and scientists from Niger. Dr. Sereno has made extraordinary discoveries in the country and wants to create places to feature Niger’s patrimony.

These buildings also have the potential to increase awareness and propriety in Niger’s residents about the country’s fascinating ecology and history.

An authentic team 

Recognizing the need for authenticity and diverse input on this project, we joined with Dr. Sereno and created NigerHeritage as a design and planning group to include architects from Niger and the Niger diaspora, representatives from the cultural ministry, experts from the Smithsonian Institution, and academics with expertise in West African history and culture. Nurtured by grants from the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society Foundation at the University of Chicago we held two international collegiums in Chicago, which also featured mayors, governors, a sheik, and representatives from Niger government for culture and finance. This broad coalition of people spoke about what the opportunities might be for the project, and the process for planning the project itself. Importantly we focused on what it means to create an authentic place.

To get more perspective from Niger’s residents, especially students and educators, NigerHeritage undertook an expedition to Niger in 2019. The town halls, field visits, and dinners in which we participated gave us time to present our ideas and solicit feedback. Following that, we convened a design charette with the NigerHeritage group in our Chicago office.

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Musée des Deserts in Adagez, Niger.

Benefits to Niger 

How will a cultural center and museum benefit Niger? Broadly speaking, these new places—a museum of the river and a cultural center for the desert—will spur scholarship in paleontology and archaeology in Niger. They will be world-class destinations, boosting tourism and international scholarship. These buildings also have the potential to increase awareness and propriety in Niger’s residents about the country’s fascinating ecology and history.

A museum of the river—Musée du Fleuve 

The Musée du Fleuve (museum of the river) cultural campus will be a national pavilion for the capital city of Niamey and house a collection of pre-Egyptian human artifacts and dinosaur fossils. Niger’s extraordinary fossil record includes Africa’s greatest dinosaurs and extinct crocodiles, footprints, and towering fossil trees. 

Drawn from Niamey’s role as a consolidation of villages, the design also incorporates the site’s location on the Niger River connected to the Kennedy Bridge. The design concept creates a series of pavilions that echo clay brick structures and nomadic tensile structures and connect public space and the city to the museum, offering visitors access to a café, public gathering spaces, and lecture halls along the way. Views of the National Assembly Building, Abdou Moumouni University, and the Niger River introduce visitors to contemporary life in Niger—its people, history, and ecology. 

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Musée du Fleuve in Niamey, Niger.

A museum of the desert—Musée des Deserts 

Agadez began as a rendezvous point for caravans traversing the Sahara, and its Grand Mosque is a UN World Heritage site. It also suffers from violent sandstorms, so walled structures characterize its buildings and gardens. The second project is a multi-faceted cultural center in the oasis of Agadez to house the unique natural and cultural heritage of the world’s greatest desert and its nomadic peoples, including fossils, music, and crafts, as well as creative studios for learning and composing.

The museum will be walkable from the university and mosque. Drawing its inspiration from the surroundings, it is designed as an object within a walled garden which allows market stalls with regional crafts to encircle its perimeter. Inside, a generous brick style structure welcomes natural light. 

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Musée des Deserts in Adagez, Niger.

Miles to go 

Although there are miles to go on these ambitious projects, we are now facilitating outreach to the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, African Development Fund, and other institutions to obtain the financial backing necessary for these endeavors. 

A design directly impacts communities for generations—that is why many of us became designers. We make an impact every day in the regions where we live. But as a global team, we collaborate across our geographies and disciplines, making us perfectly suited to tackle global challenges, to partner with communities elsewhere, create design that enhances people's lives, and lifts the very best of culture.  

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