Sitting on the Amador peninsula, with the high-rise towers of Panama City on one side and the ships of the Panama Canal passing on the other, I am mesmerized by the recently opened Biomuseo in Panama City, a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting the region. The museum is a one-stop for learning about the nature of the land, as well as the urbanization and cultural history of the nation.
Walking along the recently completed Cinta Costera urban park from Panama City’s historic 17th Century colonial area Casco Viejo, you first see the vibrant colors of the Biomuseo’s roof stand out against the verdant hills nearby. Visually stimulating, the view has your mind asking questions before you even set foot in the museum.
When asked, Panamanians will tell you that the many-colored panels remind them of the local Guacamaya parrots or the colors of the containers on the ships passing in the Panama Canal. Others reference the flamboyantly painted ‘diablos rojas’ – the omnibuses that travel the streets of Panama. A visitor might also think that the complexity of the geometry of the roofline symbolizes the biology of the museum’s home in Panama. Whatever the meaning, the colors and design of the Biomuseo reflect the intense diversity of the biosphere in this Panama.
Biodiversity has been described as the quantity of plant and animal species found in a given environment. Curator Dr. George Angehr states that Panama is a nation with one of largest number of species in animal, plant, and marine life within its borders. According to Angehr, Panama has more species of birds and amphibians than the United States and Canada combined. In fact, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has logged about 300 species of trees on a 100-hectare (247 acre) plot of land on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island – more tree species than all of the state of North Carolina.
“Panama owes much of its biodiversity to the fact that it is a crossroads for the fauna and floras of both North and South America,” Dr. Angehr reports. “The plants and animals of the two continents had evolved in isolation for tens of millions of years, but once the land bridge formed they were able to mingle. Today plants and animals from both north and south live together in Panama’s habitats.”
The creation of this land bridge is one reason that the Biomuseo has appropriately named its permanent exhibition “the Bridge of Life” (“Puente la Vida”), represented in its eight galleries. Even the marine environments of Panama’s two coasts are very different, producing tremendous variety in the species found on each side of the isthmus. Once the isthmus had been closed due to the shift of the earth’s plates, the interchange of water between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans ceased, causing the “Panama Effect,” which led to the warming influence of the currents of the Gulf Stream as well as increased salinity of the Atlantic Ocean.
The millions of years it took to create the land bridge were finally separated by man with the creation of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. It is “the audacity of man to create a canal that separates the isthmus that created this diversity,” observed Francesco Dalco, of the Italian magazine Casa Bella. Interestingly, the container ships and other vessels traversing the isthmus serve as a kinetic sculpture of this audacity as the museum’s entry hall overlooks the Panama Canal just yards away, and frames its activity.
The Biomuseo was designed by Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry. Renowned for museums in Europe and the United States, the museum is his first design to be built in Latin America. Gehry’s wife, Berta Isabel Aguilera, is Panamanian. As a result he has visited the country many times. His familiarity with the colors and culture of the country have led to a building where the architect ventured out of the color palette of many of his buildings to create something that immediately relates to culture, history, and ecology of Panama. The building was designed to reflect the ideals of ‘openness’ and ‘democracy’ and is hoped will stimulate critical thinking for all who visit.
“The museum uses the language of art to communicate scientific knowledge” and avoid the stuffiness of traditional museums, according to Margot Lopez, communications coordinator at the Biomuseo. Canadian Bruce Mau designed the eight exhibition halls at the museum in such a way that they clearly and succinctly bring forth the importance of the biodiversity of Panama without being overly academic or too ‘preachy’ (my favorite: the “Panamarama,” a three-story space with ten screens of audiovisual representations of Panama’s ecosystems).
The Biomuseo took almost 10 years to complete, but the museum’s development continues. A new biodiversity garden with over 100 species of butterflies and several hundred plants native to the isthmus opens soon.
Support for the $100 million museum was strong, with 65 percent of the funds provided by the national government of Panama and the rest by private donations. One goal, according to Lopez, is for the museum to serve as a think tank for the region. “The Biomuseo will be a place to stimulate discussion on the ecology of the area,” states Lopez.
Already the creation of the museum has brought corporate, academic, and environmental interests together to discuss the benefits of Panama’s biodiversity to their organizations. The dedication by the private foundations, companies, and many individual Panamanians to see the project finished is a testament to their desire to share the natural gifts of their country to the rest of the world.