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Panama’s new BioMuseo

Panama’s new BioMuseo. Source: New York Times

Judith H. Dobrzynski, Biomuseo Showcases Panama’s Ecological Diversity, The New York Times, 23 October 2014

For more than a century, Panama has been known as the mosquito-infested tropical country where workers battled yellow fever as they cut the 48-mile canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that changed the course of global trade.

This month Panama opened another construction feat about a different link: the brightly colored, multifaceted Biomuseo. Designed by Frank Gehry, it showcases Panama’s role as the last key piece of land in the Central American isthmus that joined North and South America nearly three million years ago — and the consequences it had for the world’s ecology.

As the junction between two continents, Panama allowed animals from the north to move south and evolve for a new climate, and southern animals to do the reverse. As a barrier between the Atlantic and the Pacific, Panama changed wind patterns, water currents, salinity and other factors affecting climate, causing the regions and the wildlife touched by the oceans to evolve in different ecological directions.

Panama, the Biomuseo proclaims, became a “bridge of life” (the title of its permanent exhibition) and a fountain of biodiversity. Just a bit bigger than Ireland, it has more species of birds, amphibians and animals (if insects are included) than the United States and Canada combined, according to George R. Angehr, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. (The Biomuseo is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, which along with the University of Panama helped develop its scientific content.)

The Biomuseo combines technology, science and art to illustrate the natural world. With eight galleries displaying the permanent exhibition, the Biomuseo is intended to sensitize visitors to the part humans play in what the director, Victor Cucalón Imbert, calls the “living web.” To promote discovery, rather than merely provide information, each one uses a “device of wonder,” like a multiscreen immersive video installation, to explain an important concept, like the climate change caused by the formation of Panama.

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