Richard Leakey has commissioned a museum dubbed’ngaren’ in the remote deserts of northern Kenya.
Leakey, famous for discovering the most complete skeleton of an early human known as Turkana Boy, wants the building to become a magnet drawing tourists to one of the planet’s least-visited spots.
After finally securing key funding , Leakey had instructed Daniel Libeskind’s firm to start drawing up plans for what he calls ‘the cathedra’.
It is to be constructed at Lake Turkana, 400 miles north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, near the border with Ethiopia, where palaeontologists including Leakey and his teams have found many of the best-preserved fossils of man’s ancient ancestors.
“I took Libeskind up to Turkana and had him see the place and listen to me chat, after which I asked, ‘can we do something here that will absolutely stand-alone and wow?’,” Leakey said in an exclusive interview.
“He immediately said yes. He said it could be one of the most important things he’s done, and he’s terribly excited about it.”
Early design ideas show a cluster of irregularly-shaped buildings inspired by Stone Age hand axes and other tools unearthed nearby. The central hall rises 15-storeys above the desert. The site’s footprint’s shape is the outline of the African continent.
The buildings will house and display some major fossils, but Leakey insists he is not interested in “displays locked away behind glass in cabinets”.
“The physical location of the actual bones is becoming increasingly irrelevant,” he said. “The people I’m talking to about this, if they have a museum pedigree, I’m basically eliminating them. I want people from Silicon Valley, or who have done something fantastic in advertising, something very creative indeed.
“Maybe we don’t want to exhibit the original [fossils] at all. Why don’t we have a room you come in to wearing a 3D headset and sit quietly in the middle of a band of Homo erectus moving all around you? That’s much more interesting than a skeleton of Turkana Boy behind glass.”
Working in Lake Turkana will be a little different. It is famous for its enormous Nile crocodiles and flocks of greater and lesser flamingos, and lies in a desert landscape where temperatures regularly exceed 35C.
Not far away is the border with South Sudan, mired in a long-running civil war. People living around Lake Turkana are nomads notorious for cattle-stealing wars with neighbouring tribes.
There are currently no tarred roads to the proposed site, and only a dirt airstrip. The landscape has scarce water, and no grid power.
But Leakey is sure these difficulties will be overcome. The Turkana County government, which fully supports his vision, has committed to upgrading roads and building an airport to take passenger jets. Libeskind is planning a building run entirely from renewable energy with a zero-carbon footprint, Leakey said.
‘the museum will be a place for discovery, wonder, and contemplation,’ libeskind explains. ‘through the architecture and exhibitions, ngaren will anchor all walks of life to africa: the epicenter of human existence. I created a series of dramatic spaces within the museum that are architecturally dynamic and provocative, creating a unique context for the museum’s exhibitions that does not pacify artifacts, but enhances and enlivens them.’ the museum is scheduled to open in 2024.
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