During the construction of the Panama Canal more than a century ago scientists were concerned about how the canal would affect the environment. What would be the impact of damming the Chagres River? Would building a Canal straight across the Isthmus create problems for migrating animals? Would invasive species move through the canal from one coast to the other?
To do research before during and after construction the Smithsonian Institution set up the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). It’s located on one of the islands connected by the causeway that forms the breakwater protecting the Pacific entrance to the canal. The Panamanian government was interested in the answers to these same questions and invited the institute to set up research and monitoring stations outside the Canal Zone, in Panama itself.
The institute is one of the reasons the BioMuseo is located here. Another is that the Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry is married to a Panamanian, Berta. He was interested in building a project in her home country. Finally, Panama wanted to build an attraction that would bring more visitors to Panama. They looked at Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and wanted to replicate the “Bilbao Effect,” creating a tourist economy around an iconic building. The BioMuseo was the happy result.
Panama is one of the most bio diverse regions of the planet. It’s where North and South America meet exchanging animals and plants. The isthmus is relatively recent, in geological terms. A little over three million years ago it did not exist and the two continents were separate. When the Central American land bridge formed all sorts of interesting things happened on land, and on sea. The closing of the isthmus completely changed world ocean currents and flows.
The BioMuseo explores and interprets these events. Frank Gehry, working closely with Bruce Mau, who designed the exhibits and the Smithsonian, which curated them, wanted a museum that asks questions, and provokes curiosity, in Gehry’s words “A device of wonder.” Gehry wanted to challenge visitor’s notions and make them reconsider the difference between interior and exterior space, public and private space and natural and artificial space. (BioMuseo Guide, Panama Bridge of Life) The museum does that. It uses art and architecture to evoke and provoke scientific thinking.
At first glance the museum looks like a pile of colored confetti. But that pile can represent several things. From the inside it seems like you’re looking up at a stylized forest canopy, with colors from the outside reflecting back on the panels inside the museum. On the outside, depending on the angle, you could imagine the colorful interlocking feathers of a tropical bird, butterflies or perhaps the colors of the containers on ships transiting the canal. Gehry also notes the diversity of the color can represent the diversity of life on the isthmus.
The museum is a work in process. The Institute is doing plantings around the museum that start with pioneer species and will end with, hopefully, a recreated forest. In future years this museum will be set in trees.