Panama City's newest, most colorful resident: The Biomuseo
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Panama City's newest, most colorful resident: The Biomuseo

Sightseers peering out the window of any high-rise along Panama City’s Balboa Avenue can’t miss the colorful, uneven structure on the horizon.

The building, which looks a bit like a child’s toy box was hit by an earthquake, is the new Biomuseo, the first building in Latin America designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. Located strategically on the Amador Peninsula, near the Pacific-side entrance to the Panama Canal, the Biomuseo offers a panoramic view of the Bridge of the Americas, the Old Quarter, and the modern city skyline.

More than 15 years after the idea of the museum was initially formulated, and almost ten years after construction began, the Biomuseo will officially open its doors on October 2. However, the museum has already make part of its permanent exhibition open to those who simply couldn’t wait until October, offering limited visiting hours on Fridays and weekends beginning back in July.

According to Fundacion Amador, the nonprofit organization behind the Biomuseo, the museum hopes to “offer an experience that will amaze and educate about biodiversity and the emergence of the isthmus, so that Panamanians feel motivated to know and appreciate this natural component of their identity.”

Smithsonian scientist Anthony Coates suggests that when Panama emerged from the sea, closing the flow of water between the Pacific and Atlantic, this development caused changes in weather and influenced evolutionary patterns worldwide. As one of the many helpful guides at the Biomuseo described it, “when one door closes, another one opens.”

Panama: Bridge of Life

The permanent exhibition contains eight galleries, created by a team led by Canadian designer Bruce Mau. The content of the galleries was devised by a scientific team from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Panama. These exhibits offer visitors opportunities for interaction and hands-on learning, as well as individual audio tours that tell a story at each station. These galleries include:

  • The Gallery of Biodiversity, where visitors are introduced to the abundance of life in Panama through walls covered in stained glass and depicting the different species that live on the Isthmus. At first, the bright colors are a visual feast, until the visitor realizes that each color represents the degree of vulnerability of each species: from dark green signifying “not threatened” to black, which means”extinct.”
  • Panamarama, where a projection space with ten screens surrounds the visitor with images and sounds showing the natural habitats of Panama’s ecosystems.
  • Building the Bridge, which contains three 14-foot-high rock formations representing the underground forces that caused the Isthmus to emerge from under the sea.
  • Worlds Collide shows how the emergence of the Isthmus created a land bridge, allowing species from North America to migrate south and vice versa, after about 70 million years of separation. The gallery contains numerous life-size sculptures representing the region’s fauna as it existed 3 million years ago.
  • The Human Path, a gallery in a partially open-air space, with sixteen columns that show the history of human life in Panama and their interactions with nature throughout the years.
  • Through two 10-meter-high aquariums, Oceans Divided shows how the Pacific and the Atlantic (Caribbean) developed in very different ways after Panama’s emergence.
  • The Living Web, a large sculpture that is part plant, animal, insect and microorganism. The sculpture display how living things need and compete with each other, and how every species is equally important to its ecosystem.
  • Panama is the Museum, with a series of displays that reveal the relationship between Panama’s biodiversity and the world.

With the participation of landscape designer Edwina Von Gal, the Biomuseo will also be surrounded by a Biopark, a botanical garden with eight stations and a variety of carefully selected plant species, meant to complement the main exhibits.

Though it is very new, the Biomuseo has already been garnering worldwide praise and attention, with features on the Architectural Digest, CNN reasons to visit Panama, and receiving a Platinum Award on the ACEC 2014 Engineering Excellence Awards. 

The building and its exhibits break up the string of Panama City’s glitzy high-rises with a splash of much-needed color and a fascinating educational experience, and with the official public opening just a few days away, the Biomuseo is likely to see its popularity continue to grow.