The idea that we are above nature—that we have dominion over it, and that it is endlessly abundant—is a dangerous relic of an age of arrogance and ignorance. We are part of nature; we depend on ecological systems to sustain us. Our approach to everything we do, design, and produce must be informed by this knowledge.
For most of our recorded history we set ourselves
apart from nature. Recently, the science of genetics has set the record straight. We now know that life on this planet is an ongoing experiment in myriad form and we are merely one of those forms.
How do we define and design the world’s first museum of biodiversity?
Panama City, 2002–14, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the University of Panama, and Gehry Partners
The Biomuseo, also known as The Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life, is the world’s first museum of biodiversity. When Panama formed some six million years ago, it cut one ocean environment into two—Pacific and Caribbean—and joined two island ecologies into one—North and South America linked by the isthmus of Panama. Tony Coates, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), described Panama as an ideal case study in biodiversity because of this unique history.
We started work on this project 13 years ago. Collaborating with architect Frank Gehry’s studio and a team of scientists at STRI, we envisioned a new global institution—a museum of biodiversity. We started with the visitor experience in designing the museum on an extraordinary site overlooking the Panama Canal.
Our approach was to consider Panama as the real “museum,” and Frank Gehry’s building as its “lobby.” With that in mind, we began by designing the strategy for the new Biomuseum:
to Declare our commitment to sustaining life on earth and the critical importance of biodiversity;
to Educate people about the importance of biodiversity, and finally;
to Network the museum with the cultural and scientific resources that already exist in Panama.
The museum’s introduction, Panamarama, is a three-story immersive cinematic tour of the complexity and diversity of life in Panama. The visitor stands on a glass floor surrounded by sound and image. As if by magic the entire room is flown across the continental divide, up into the canopy of the tropical rain forests, and down into the ocean to experience the extent of one of the richest ecosystems in the world.
According to Biomuseo Public Program director Margot López, ”The reaction from teachers and school groups who have had the opportunity to explore the museum has been electric. Some of them have been in tears. It opens an entirely new way of learning science. It is as much art as it is science, and it shows them what they can learn and teach using the living things around them.”
In the gallery of the Great Biotic Interchange, animals long extinct—giant sloths, saber tooth tigers, largemouth bears—and living species of all sorts stampede north and south. The installation evokes the land bridge opening up the great migrations of species spanning millions of years. Interactive displays share details of what happened to each species.
BIOMUSEO PROCESS MODELS
During the Biomuseo exhibition design process, models were developed to text and communication the design plan.