Museum of the River, Niamey

Mission

The Museum of the River is Niger’s premier transformational educational experience that showcases Niamey’s geologic setting and early history, the succession of Niger’s dinosaurs and other extinct creatures that capture Africa’s ancient past, Niger’s unique archaeological record of the Green Sahara, and the wildlife and wetland ecology of Isle Gaweye and the Niger River.

Aims

The Museum of the River aims to:

  • Preserve and showcase Niger’s unique archaeology and paleontology
  • Showcase Niger’s geologic past and today’s wetlands ecology of the Niger River
  • Anchor Niamey’s revitalization (Niamey-Nyala) with a centrally-located, green world-class architectural and cultural attraction
  • Synergize with the University of Niamey educational programs in museology, archaeology and paleontology
  • Accelerate national and international tourist visitation
  • Stimulate artisanal opportunities and waterfront development

Project Overview

Project Team

An international team that includes civic leaders, urban planners, scholars, architects, museum specialists, artists and philanthropists has met several times in Chicago and Niamey since 2017 to plan the Museum of the River.

Paul Sereno
Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago
Assoumana Mallam Issa
Minister of Cultural Renaissance, Niamey
Mouctar Mamoudou
High Commissioner for Niamey Nyala, Niamey
Bisa Williams
Former U.S. Ambassador to Niger, WSA Strategy Advisors, Washington, DC
Bob Vladem
Philanthropist, Santa Fe
Didier Dutheil
Paleontologist and Filmmaker, Paris
Mawli Dayak
Culture and Tourism Promotion, Niamey
Paul Adderley
Professor, University of Sterling, UK
Bess Palmisciano
Founder, RAIN for the Sahel and Sahara, Portsmouth
Seyni Moumouni
Director, Institute of Research on Human Sciences, Niamey
Rebel Roberts
Principal Architect, Stantec Architecture, Chicago
Adji Mansour
Architect and Urban Planner, AMAA
Soufian Fezzani
Architect and Project Manager, Paris
Lisa Roberts
Founder, naturalia, inc, Chicago
Diana N’Diaye
Curator, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Alphadi
Fashion Designer, Niamey/Paris
Principal Partners

Principal partners in planning the Museum of the River are located in Niamey and Chicago and include:

  • Government of Niger, Ministries of Cultural Renaissance, Culture and Tourism
  • City of Niamey, Niamey-Nyala
  • Boubou Hama National Museum
  • University of Chicago
  • Stantec Architecture
  • Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey
  • Adji Mansour Architecture Aménagement (AMAA)

Context

The Museum of the River project arose in response to urgent needs and opportunities.

National repository and training center. There exists no national repository, exhibition space or university programs to professionally house, display and study the many tons of vertebrate fossils, reconstructed skeletons, and prehistoric burials and artifacts that come from world-renowned field areas in the Agadez Region of Niger. This world-class patrimony calls for a new national repository, exhibition center and training programs in museology, archaeology and paleontology.

Centerpiece for Niamey-Nyala. Niamey’s urban renewal plan (Niamey-Nyala) aims to unify a city built on opposing riverbanks. Isle Gaweye, a picturesque mid-river anchor for the Kennedy Bridge that first joined the two sides of the capital, is the perfect location for a national repository and exhibition center that would also protect and showcase its unique wetland environment.

Waterfront development. Despite growth of Niamey as a major urban metropolis, the banks of the Niger River that run through its center are underdeveloped. The proposed museum is key to making Niamey’s waterfront a major public attraction that protects and showcases the river’s wetland wildlife of hippopotami, bats, birds, crocodiles and aquafauna.

International exchange. Niger continues to play a central role in mitigating human migration and providing a base for regional security in collaboration with other nations of the Sahel, the United States and European Union. The museum project presents a high-profile opportunity for Niger’s international partners to support a cultural project of great national significance and lasting educational and economic impact.

Location

Niamey Metro

Niamey, capital of the Niger Republic and located on the banks of the Niger River, began as an agricultural village founded by Maouri, Zarma (Djerma) and Fulani people. Established as the capital of Niger in 1926 with a population of about 3,000, the city grew mainly on the northeast bank of the river, expanding on the opposite bank after completion of the Kennedy Bridge in 1970. The city’s population was only 30,000 as late as 1960, when Niger declared its independence.

Today’s metro area, called the Niamey Urban Community, has a population of about 1.5 million people from all regions of Niger and West Africa as well as an international expatriate community.

Recent and ongoing urban planning in Niamey, called Niamey-Nyala, involves transit development, stabilizing and repurposing the waterfront for pedestrian access and visitation, development of green and cultural corridors, and concentrated zones for commerce and housing.

Niamey Central

Niamey Central, the administrative and cultural center of the city, is located on the northeast bank at its junction with the Kennedy Bridge. The Boubou Hama National Museum occupies a tiered elevated location near the original historic village, bounded on the north by a small drainage into the Niger River. The Palais de Congrès and the Hotel Gaweye are opposite the Museum, and to the northwest are located the new International Conference Center and Radisson Blu Hotel. The older Grand Hotel is perched atop a prominent riverfront cliff to the southeast. On the opposing southwest bank, the Kennedy Bridge leads to the campus of the University of Niamey and the Lamordé University Hospital.

Isle Gaweye

Granitic rocks more than two billion years old form the core of Isle Gaweye and provide a mid-river anchor for the Kennedy Bridge. Additional Chinese-built bridges upstream and downstream to Isle Gaweye make possible the repurposing of the Kennedy Bridge to accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic to the Isle. At present, Isle Gaweye is not wholly in the public domain with portions of seasonally-flooded areas now split into small plots for limited seasonal farming.

Niamey-Nyala and the Museum of the River project refocus attention to this stable island of wetlands wildlife in the heart of the capital, which has been neglected to the point of remaining anonymous on available maps. It supports diverse migrating and resident birds, fruit bats, hippos, crocodiles, fish and wetlands flora native to the river. A major theme of urban planning in Niamey is to return attention to, and make publicly accessible, its waterfront. Isle Gaweye, transformed into a natural reserve home to the Museum of the River, embodies all aspects of this mission.

Niger River

The Niger River, West Africa’s longest waterway (4,180km; 2,600mi), has an unusual V-shaped course. It originates in the Guinea Highlands a short distance from the Atlantic coast (240km; 150mi), draining northeast into Mali. There it bends sharply after Timbuktu, coursing southeast across Niger and Nigeria.

The two limbs of the V-shaped Niger River were once separate rivers. The “Upper Niger” was formerly connected to the Senegal River and drained westward into the Atlantic Ocean. About 3 million years ago (end Tertiary), sand dunes cut that river off, sending it inland to a lake that exists today as broad wetlands called the Inner Niger Delta near Timbuktu. Increased water flow in the last million years eventually connected the wetlands to the “Lower Niger” river, which drains central Niger and passes south across Nigeria.

Two-thirds of the water entering the Inner Niger Delta evaporates or is absorbed. The remainder (~20km3/yr) continues around the bend and across Niger. A major tributary from the east (Benue River) contributes most of the water passing out the Niger Delta (~160km3/yr).

The Niger River floods annually, peaking in November, and has dried up in major droughts in 1985 and 1990. Water volume has decreased by 30% in the last 30 years. Niger’s Kendaji Dam, began in 2008 with work ongoing, may join other hydroelectric dams on the Niger River as a check on future flooding, with record high stand in Niamey (6.7 m) in 2020 (still below the Kennedy Bridge, the level of the proposed museum).

On August 27, 2020 the Niger River peaked in Niamey with 1 m of water flooding low parts of both banks of the city.

Site

The northwestern end of Isle Gaweye, just off the Kennedy Bridge, is the site for the Museum of the River. Access plans include a tree-lined pedestrian access via the bridge, a vehicular drop-off circle near the museum and boat landings on both sides of the island.

Isle Gaweye provides a centrally-located and highly visible, yet natural, setting for the Museum of the River. The location would enhance public access to Niamey’s iconic island, which would better serve its home city and country as a protected ecological reserve. The Isle Gaweye site would unite the two sides of the capital and stimulate waterfront development (restaurants, retail, boat tours) on opposing riverbanks.

Design

Narrative

The Museum of the River tells the ‘story of Niger over the ages’ from its geologic inception, across chapters in the Age of Dinosaurs, through climate change that once greened the Sahara, to the present wetlands ecology of Niger’s principal waterway.

The museum is a passage from deep to recent time, a sequence of masonry galleries sheathed in decorative tile from Nigerien craftsmen that showcase Niger’s priceless objects of antiquity, culminating in a celebration of the wetlands ecology that attracted Niamey’s earliest inhabitants. It provides fresh perspectives on Niamey’s cityscape and the beauty of the river at its heart.

The narrative for this extraordinary museum will express its:

  • national charge as principal repository and showcase for Niger’s world-class ancient heritage
  • critical role raising public awareness of Niger’s river and wetlands ecology
  • riverfront location uniting the capital that straddles West Africa’s principal waterway
  • unifying centerpiece of Niamey-Nyala
  • status as Niger’s premiere international destination and extraordinary visitor experience
  • fluid, green architectural design as the world’s first positive-energy natural history museum

The siloed gallery design of the Museum of the River reflects Niamey’s early founding in the 18th century as a cluster of riverbank villages linked to the Niger River. Its cavity-walled galleries and proximate location to cool waters are key to an award-winning, energy-positive design that positions the Museum of the River at the vanguard of modernist green architecture, emphasizing sustainability and resiliency.

Stepping off the Kennedy Bridge onto Isle Gaweye, the visitor overlooks some of the oldest rocks in Africa, the sculpted boulders of ancient granite. These rocks, which record the assembly of the continent some 2 billion years ago, greet visitors to the Museum of the River.

Seven galleries tell the story of Niger in sequence, from its geologic birth to today’s setting of the capital on West Africa’s greatest riverway.

Gallery 1 Niger Origins
Orients the visitor to the museum (orientation theatre) and to the regional geology of Niger
Gallery 2 Irhazer
Captures a Middle Jurassic world (~180 million years ago), housing the oldest dinosaurs and dinosaur footprints of Niger
Gallery 3 Tiguidit
Captures a Late Jurassic world (~160 million years ago) of towering plant-eaters like Jobaria, stealthy predators like Afrovenator and unusual armored dinosaurs and crocodylians
Gallery 4 Gadoufaoua
Captures a Mid Cretaceous world (~110 million years ago), including a world-renowned array of plant-eaters, meat-eaters, flying reptiles, crocodylians and fish
Gallery 5 Iguidi
Captures a Late Cretaceous world (~95 million years ago) and Niger’s spectacular youngest dinosaurs, crocodylians and fish
Gallery 6 Ancient Saharans
Captures the oldest archaeological record in Niger, human burials and artifacts from the world-famous “Green Sahara” site Gobero. And finally,
Gallery 7 River Wetlands
Captures the history and wetland ecology of the Niger River, highlighting its aquatic and semiaquatic fauna including hippos, crocodile, perch and the classic flora along its banks (baobab, river vegetation)
Gallery summary and exhibit plan.
No. Gallery Program Age
1
Niger Origins
Niger, Isle Gaweye geology, timeline, orientation theatre
~2.2 bya
2
Irhazer
Middle Jurassic world, dinosaurs, trackways
~180 mya
3
Tiguidit
Late Jurassic world, dinosaurs, crocodiles, petrified logs
~160 mya
4
Gadoufaoua
Mid Cretaceous world, dinosaurs, pterosaur, crocs, fish
~110 mya
5
Iguidi
Late Cretaceous world, dinosaurs, crocodiles, fish
~95 mya
6
Ancient Sahara
Green Sahara world, human burials, artifacts, film theatre
~10-5 kya
7
River Wetlands
River history, wetlands ecology, living fauna and flora
Recent

A themed café and retail space occupy the last structure, overlooking the river and downtown Niamey, and the program concludes with an elevated promenade for an intimate view of wetlands wildlife.

Museum Spaces

The seven galleries of the Museum of the River are joined together by a tensile translucent canopy that allows light to penetrate but protects visitors from excessive solar radiation. Within the galleries, controlled natural light is the primary source of illumination, with cavity walls enhancing passive ventilation.

Gardens themed to local plant assemblages will occupy several spaces between the galleries under the canopy.

The Museum of the River includes non-exhibit ancillary spaces, some of which are indoors and others outdoors.

Indoor ancillary spaces
Administration and security
Storage
Café and restrooms
Gardens of endemic plants and trees
Outdoor ancillary spaces
Orientation amphitheatre
Terrace rock exhibit
Café seating
Ecopark promenade
Boat landings
Structure and Materials

The Museum of the River aims to be the world’s first energy-positive natural history exhibition space by employing double (Trombe) walls, solar chimneys, natural ventilation, river breezes, an active photovoltaic array and passive river water cooling. The design also employs earthen architecture clad in decorative tiles handcrafted locally that highlight traditional patterns.

Its artistic innovative design has already won an international award.

Museum
Floor platform elevated on rock-anchored concrete piers
Gallery suite surrounded by translucent canopy
River water for passive cooling and power generation
Gallery
Aluminum-framed skylight for controlled daylight illumination
Cavity wall ventilation with interior rainwater collection
Cast in place concrete columns/beams and masonry parabolic arches
Locally-sourced hand-laid brick masonry interior and exterior surfaces
Locally handcrafted artwork featured
Canopy
Tensile, translucent canopy supported by external compression spars
Photovoltaic film over canopy surface for solar energy
Promenade
Elevated walkways supported on concrete piers
Walking surface of manufactured wood
Featuring locally handcrafted ceramic tile and artwork
Energy and Climate Control

Energy is generated via photovoltaic film on the canopy and water flow in the river. Temperature reduction is accomplished by thermal mass-coupled cavity walls, passive internal ventilation, and passive water cooling. Dust is reduced by ventilation louvers.

Further Reading

1986
Welcomme, R. L. "The Niger River System". In: Davies, B. R., Walker, K. F. (eds), The Ecology of River Systems, Springer, pp. 9–60.
2004
Rogers, J. J. W., and Santosh, M. Continents and Supercontinents. Oxford University Press, New York, 237 pp.
2006
Geels, J. Niger: The Bradt Travel Guide. Brandt Travel Guides. Chalfont St. Peter (UK) 262 pp.
2020
Gafarou, S. Tourism development in Niger: Challenges and opportunities. In: Novelli, M., Adu-Ampong, and A. Ribeiro, M. A. (eds), Routledge Handbook of Tourism in Africa, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, pp. 282-295.