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.