UChicago partners with scholars, political leaders to preserve Niger’s heritage

Paleontologist Paul Sereno discusses upcoming conference on international collaboration

A distinguished group of experts will gather at the University of Chicago on July 30–Aug. 2 to collaborate on a bold plan to preserve Niger’s rich heritage. The project, called “NigerHeritage,” aims to create two institutions in Niger that will display Africa’s greatest collection of dinosaurs and ancient artifacts as well as celebrate the region’s cultures.

Archaeologists, paleontologists, historians, architects, nonprofit leaders and urban planners from the United States and abroad will join Nigerien policy leaders to develop programming and design concepts for the sites. A zero-energy national museum pavilion in the capital city of Niamey will house dinosaur fossils, human burials and artifacts from the pre-dynastic cultures of the Green Sahara. A multi-faceted cultural center in Agadez will preserve the language, art, music and customs of the nomadic peoples of the Sahara while providing educational programming and studio space for artists and musicians. Both buildings will be cutting-edge hybrids of modern and traditional architecture.

The event is sponsored by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, which supports faculty-led humanistic research collaborations, with additional support from the Sereno Fossil Lab. Paleontologist Paul Sereno, who organized the conference, recently shared his thoughts on the project and why it represents such a unique and valuable opportunity.

You’re well known for discovering dinosaur species the world had never seen before. How did your research as a paleontologist lead to a plan to build these cultural institutions in Niger?

When I was just starting to look at dinosaurs, I was attracted to Niger because the Sahara Desert was one of the best exposed but least explored places to study them. I’ve been drawn back ever since, and it has been one riveting discovery after another. I spent 30 years digging up about a hundred tons of Nigerien heritage. This does not occur in a vacuum. You get to rub shoulders with the people whose backyard you’re in, and you need to come to some agreement over the value of what you’ve discovered just below the sand—and then you have to agree on how everybody is going to share in it. Most of these treasures are here at the University. I want to give them back—in such a way that they will be preserved forever.

What purpose will these institutions serve?

Nigerien heritage includes Africa’s greatest dinosaur collection, capturing about 100 million years of dinosaur evolution. It also preserves a pre-dynastic period called the Green Sahara: that includes the fauna, the animals, the plants, and also the people and their artifacts, their way of life, their pottery, sophisticated artwork. So we have this heritage that stretches through paleontological and archaeological times, but it also extends right up to today. The Sahara is home to the world’s greatest nomadic cultures. The Tuareg, Toubou and other cultures that have found ways to survive in these dry habitats have an incredibly rich history. They have developed written languages, musical traditions, leatherwork, craftsmanship and artistry. But there’s not a single institution to preserve any of these collections.

What activities have you planned for the conference?

First, we’re going to visit the Field Museum to look at some of the best and most recent attempts to preserve and display paleontology, archaeology and culture. This will get the ideas flowing in people’s heads. We’re also going to look at the energy-efficient north wing of the Art Institute, which uses natural light to illuminate the artwork in the galleries. This is not too far from what we’re trying to do. After absorbing what Chicago has to offer, we’re going to sit in what’s called a charrette—this is a working meeting, with drawing boards—where we can begin to develop the program and design concepts for the national pavilion and the cultural center.

What topics do you hope to cover?

Site, program, concept: This is a pretty standard arrangement when you’re trying to build something. We need to understand where these sites will be situated in each city, and the factors to use to our advantage and to take note of, and where the population will be coming from. Then we’ll move to program: What is it that we’re going to try to put into these institutions? Do we want a lecture space? Do we want a laboratory? How much space do we need for these things? We’ve got a couple of design concepts to discuss, and we’ll try to come to a consensus over a particular visual approach for each building.

How have Nigerien political leaders responded to your efforts to facilitate these discussions?

When we went to the country last year to open up this dialogue, we were whisked to the very top echelons of the country’s cultural and political hierarchy. We were literally taken into the president’s house by his ministers to apprise him on this project. As it turns out, they were already developing plans of their own. They believe they need to do something with regard to their cultural heritage, something other than just beautify the architecture in Agadez, something big. They see this as an opportunity to strengthen national unity through cultural renaissance. So there’s a lot of common interest here, which is what generated this very inclusive meeting that we’re going to have. Ultimately, this project is driven by the groundswell of interest in Niger.

What next steps do you anticipate for the remainder of the NigerHeritage project?

I think we’re going to end up at the end of this conference with some beautiful pre-design sketches. Those will give us a pretty good idea of where we want to go. The next step is finding the means to put that all together and bring it to the people and the places and the foundations that can make it happen. This intermediary phase creates proposals, multiple times and in multiple ways, with all of the details mapped out. And then, you actually make it happen.