It all started in 2004. That’s when Canadian architect Frank Gehry signed on to design his first Latin American project, a museum in Panama City. Ten years later, the Biomuseo is finally opening. Sort of. Ten years after the project started, Panama City’s Biomuseo is having a soft opening today (June 23, 2014) to give staff some practice with visitors. But don’t get too excited. The public really won’t have access to the museum (at US$22 per adult and US$11 per child) until the end of the year and then only five of the museum’s eight galleries will be open.
When we were in Panama City we got a private sneak peek inside the museum and here’s what you can expect from this ambitious project when it finally opens its doors.
Making sense of Panama City’s Biomuseo
We have to admit that an evolutionary museum in Panama seemed like a totally random project for Frank Gehry until we learned that his wife is Panamanian. Who knew? The abrupt, angular, primary color design of the building made more sense after we learned that it was inspired by the clothing of Panama’s indigenous Kuna and Emberá people, the angles and chaos of the shipping containers that pass through the Panama Canal and the upheaval of the isthmus which created the country of Panama.
The name of the Biomuseo made sense after we learned that the museum is focused on how the isthmus that rose three million years ago to form what is now Panama changed the world by facilitating animal and plant migration and creating the Caribbean sea which created the gulf stream which warmed up Europe and transformed the African continent from lush green to dry savannah.
The main mission of the Biomuseo is to educate Panamanians about the environmental and evolutionary importance of their terra firma and foster national pride and appreciation of what’s in their backyard. We were also told that museum officials also expect to bus in 40,000 school students every year and the museum will have two in-house teachers on staff. The students’ every day teachers will receive lesson kits from the museum months in advance of their scheduled visits so they can prep. The combined cost of the physical museum and the educational program is more than US$100 million.
A sneak peek inside Panama City’s Biomuseo
There are plenty of reasons why travelers should also pay a visit to the Biomuseo (when it eventually opens in late 2014), as we learned when we got a private sneak peek inside the place while the exhibits were being installed (we were only allowed to take photos outside).
The museum is divided into eight themed galleries. Gallery 1 is the Gallery of Biodiversity in which we learned that the planet is losing species 400 times faster than we were a few decades ago and we only know about half the biodiversity on the planet.
In Gallery 2, the Panamarama Gallery, enormous video screens cover every surface including the floor and they show footage depicting the biodiversity in Panama.
Gallery 3 is called Building the Bridge and has a geological focus, including explanations of how the land rose and fossils displays.
Gallery 4 is called Worlds Collide and it’s filled with all-white, life-size versions of the species that “collided” thanks to the isthmus.
Gallery 5 is an indoor/outdoor venue called The Human Path which features 16 thick glass columns (at least one of which shattered during installation and was being replaced the day we visited) each depicting human evolution in the region.
Gallery 6 is called Oceans Divided and features massive aquariums, and Gallery 7, The Living Web, illustrates the inter-connectivity of species. Gallery 8, called Panama is the Exhibit, is interactive.
All exhibits are in English and Spanish. At the end of 2014 five galleries will be open including The Gallery of Biodiversity, Panamarama, Building the Bridge, World’s Collide and The Human Path along with a cafe, a temporary exhibit hall, a gift shop and part of the botanical park that surrounds the building will be open.
By the end of 2016 museum officials hope to open a series of aquarium tanks, the last three galleries, an auditorium and a restaurant as well as the finished park that will include an amphibian pond and a grotto for native orchids. Fingers crossed.
So, why does it take 10 years to build a museum?
Almost every ambitious building project goes over deadline and over budget. But why has it taken 10 years for Panama City’s Biomuseo to near completion? “We knew this was going to be an architectural challenge for Panama,” explained Margot López, the communications and marketing coordinator of the museum, “Furthermore, this is a state project and changing from administration to administration every five years tends to slow things down.”
Read more about travel in Panama