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February 16, 2019

Leakey's Turkana museum plan overdue

For the longest time, Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie, the concert hall built in the Port City, looked like an overambitious project that would end up being a costly, never ending disaster. It took more than ten years to finish, and at nearly 800 million euros (Sh92.76 billion), it was many, many times over budget – and this was public money from the City of Hamburg. At one point, even the architects, Herzog and de Meuron, worried that “there were moments when we thought this building would destroy our whole career”.

But it’s been completed, and opened – to much acclaim and excitement, both international and local. The building – which sits on an old warehouse in the Speicherstadt, the old part of Hamburg’s port – is sweepingly gorgeous, and the interior is designed to deliver perfect sound. Tickets are booked out for months to come. And for the City of Hamburg, proud old Hanse city, this turned out to have been a worthwhile investment after all: hotels have asked for their allocation of tickets to be increased because the Elbharmonie has become such a strong draw for tourists. This was a similar effect as the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum had for Spain’s Bilbao.

So I had been quite excited to learn that Richard Leakey had commissioned Daniel Libeskind’s firm to design a museum for Kenya’s paleoanthropologist finds at Lake Turkana. Leakey says that the concept will be less about locking up bones in glass cases, but the idea – alongside, obviously, stunning architecture, because this is a Libeskind design – is to bring humankind’s earliest history to life.

I am not a religious person at all, but the time travel involved in paleo anthropology, when the story of bones lets you gaze down hundreds of thousands years to our joint origins, makes me feel spiritual. This was one of the reasons why this project excites me. The other is Libeskind: for all of Kenya’s building boom, there is precious little in terms of interesting contemporary architecture. And yes, you could argue that maybe Kenya would have local architectural talent, or that Leakey could have asked Adjaye.

But here’s the third reason – and this also counters those people who said that such a mega projects is misplaced when people die of hunger. I don’t know if Leakey will be able to pull this off, and how he will finance it. But if he does, what a boon to tourism this could potentially be. Kenya is a popular tourism destination and the sector is a major forex earner, but this would truly be a spectacular diversification in the country’s offering, and the museum could well become an attraction in its own right.

The writer is an independent analyst

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