Faraway: Get Out of Your World
A museum to connect the whole world
The Isthmus of Panama has served to connect the world for the past three million years. Now, the nation of Panama has constructed a museum called the Biomuseo, which will continue that geologic tradition by fostering human connections as visitors stream through the 43,000 sq. ft. building designed by Frank Gehry.
Here are a few highlights from the article by Jeff Campagna in the Smithsonian Magazine:
I met Margot López beneath the flamboyant multi-panel roof of the museum. López is the communications coordinator for the Biomuseo and has been working with the project for over six years now. I met Lopez almost two years ago when I took a hardhat tour of the museum construction site. I’m happy to see that she’s still here. We stand in the open-air lobby and appreciate the almost 360-degree view surrounding us: to our right, barely a hundred feet away, hulking cargo ships lurk past in the canal waters on their way to the Mira Flores Locks; straight ahead the causeway continues to narrow as it reaches for the Pacific; and to the left sits the glassy Bay of Panama and, just beyond, the shimmering metropolis of Panama City, slightly hazy in the near distance.
Visitors must begin at the Gallery of Biodiversity which acts as an introduction to Panama’s genetic, ecological and biological bounty. Colorful placards on the wall display names, both in Spanish and English, of critically endangered Panamanian species, including the hawksbill turtle, alongside extinct species like the spiny green tree frog and the splendid poison frog. Also covered in this gallery are the current bio-prospecting initiatives that are being carried out in the country by organizations such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).
Next up is the vertigo-inducing Panamarama exhibit where visitors are practically surrounded by ten gigantic projection screens, underfoot and overhead, some as high as 30 feet in the air, and battered for six glorious minutes with recorded images and sounds of Panama’s natural wonders. After leaving the Panamarama gallery with a slight kink in the neck, visitors are introduced to the geological history of the isthmus. Towering tectonic sculptures reach like blades of grass to the ceiling and ancient rocks from various regions of Panama loom below. The gallery aims to introduce visitors to the rather dramatic geological formation of the isthmus over the last few million years. On display is a 70-million-year-old pillow basalt from Punta San Lorenzo and 6-million-year-old sandstone dredged up from Toro Point in Colon with mollusk fossils, barnacle plates and sea urchin fragments embedded in the rock.
The flow through the different exhibits is quite strict, as if on rails. Dilly-dallyers who prefer a more freeform museum-going experience might be disappointed by the narrow hallways of most of the galleries and the pressure to keep moving through. But the conceptual approach taken by Bruce Mau Design, the firm responsible for the internal design of the structure, is clearly intentional. George Angehr, a research associate at STRI who is also the curator of exhibitions for the museum says via e-mail that “the Biomuseo is designed as a narrative of how Panama's geological, biological and human history has created its great biodiversity.”
A sizeable chunk of the project’s budget, however, has been put toward an education program that integrates lessons on the country’s biodiversity into the Panamanian curriculum. Students will go on multiple field trips to the museum each year. “The Biomuseo is intended to be a place to foster connections,” Angehr says, “as a gateway to connect Panama to the rest of the world, and within Panama to connect Panamanians and visitors to the rest of their country and to inform them of the important global role it has played.” The museum itself has two full-time teachers on staff. This admirable commitment to knowledge seems to permeate everything the museum does. But, more importantly, it doesn’t ruin the fun. The experience is decidedly half school, half schoolyard.
The rest of the article describes other exhibits like the replicas of extinct creatures made from fiberglass that museum-goers can actually touch and climb upon. One is the Texas glyptodont, an armadillo-like creature and another is the hermit ground sloth that is standing at thirteen feet.
I think the narrow walkways of the museum mimic the Isthmus itself. As you complete the tour, you’re led outside onto the Human Path which is a free outdoor exhibit with classrooms and gardens.
The museum officially opens in October. A new exhibit called “Oceans Divided” will be completed in 2016 - a two-story aquatic display with interactive technology.
If you’re out traveling and find yourself in Panama, the Biomuseo is worth a visit. Tickets are $22 adult/$11 child for non-residents (half those prices for residents).