Views of Panama

The Biomuseo is here

The Biomuseo opened its doors after eight years of work and effort; the museum, designed by famed Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is dedicated to biodiversity and tells the fascinating story of how Panama changed the world three million years ago. Join us on a brief tour.

Por: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez


You might hear me say “Panama is a crazy country” fairly frequently, just out of sheer amazement. And now the much-anticipated opening of the Biomuseo supports my idea. It never ceases to amaze me that a place like this could open here, in this tiny country of just slightly more than three million inhabitants. This sui generis structure is the first building in Latin America designed by famed Canadian architect Frank Gehry, a kind of mad genius and icon of modern architecture who received this year’s Prince of Asturias Prize for the creation of significant works like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

What is “crazy,” if you think about it, is that this museum dedicated to biodiversity could not have been built anywhere else. The 43,000-square-foot structure sets the stage for the fascinating and unique story of how this country changed the world. Panama was the last piece of the Central American isthmus to emerge three million years ago; it joined North and South America, lands that had been separate for seventy million years. This cataclysm also divided a great ocean, the previously combined Atlantic and Pacific, creating two completely different oceans. The emergence of this slender throat of land unleashed a chain of events that, among other things, laid the conditions for ice at the poles, changed the climate of Europe and Africa, and forced mass migrations of some animals, while causing others to disappear.

All the details of this incredible story are told in the eight galleries of the museum’s permanent exhibition, fittingly titled “Panama: Bridge of Life” and designed by Bruce Mau, a world-renowned Canadian artist known for architecture, art, and museum creation. His work at the Biomuseo is a blend of art and science that gives visitors the sensation of bearing witness to an astonishing phenomenon. The scientific content was developed by a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Panama. It is marvelous that the museum is now open to the public after eight years of intense efforts to design the project, construct the building, and seek financing to fund such an ambitious endeavor.

In fact, the museum is so large that it is not entirely ready yet. It opened with only five of its eight galleries completed, wrapping up the plan’s first phase at a cost of one hundred million dollars, explains Margot López, the Biomuseo’s Director of Communications. “Our second phase, which includes four interpretive stations in the park and the last three galleries, one of which will house the aquariums, will probably cost an additional fifteen million dollars. They are the most complicated installations in the whole project,” she adds.

Ms. López took us around the museum. Before telling us about the galleries, she briefly explained the idea behind the building. The striking façade, featuring brightly-colored roofs, is Frank Gehry’s interpretation of the richness of Panamanian biodiversity; the style is both singular and abstract, but still in harmony with its environment. Inside, the color palette mutes to grays and neutrals which, in conjunction with the spaciousness of the structure, invites visitors to turn their attention outward and observe the surrounding beauty. There is a certain logic behind the concept, especially considering that the museum is located on Calzada de Amador, a high-draw tourist area at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. “The building induces you to look outside at Panama’s beautiful natural landscape. The Biomuseo, both the building and the exhibit, hopes to teach you to look at nature through new eyes.”

Now we cross the threshold and immerse ourselves in the fascinating story of the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama. Here is a peek at the five finished galleries.

Biodiversity Gallery

Visitors are welcomed to the world of natural sciences and the explosion of life in Panama. The interesting twist is that two basic questions are answered before the tour begins: “What is biodiversity?” and “Why is it important?” It is not so much a matter of simply saving endangered species, but rather genetic diversity, which is the basis of evolution. Highlights of this gallery include a showcase of newly-discovered species, so new that they have not yet been studied in depth. This component is essential here, because new species are found in Panama all the time. To raise awareness, humans are shown to be the most devastating predator in the chain, since the species is growing exponentially while causing the extinction of other living beings through factors such as pollution and climate change.


More than a gallery, it is an experience. While we were just overwhelmed with interesting information on biodiversity, here we learn that we live amongst an unimaginable number of living beings and communities. The entire gallery is a three-story projection space with a glass floor and ten giant screens that envelop visitors in an impressive six-minute audiovisual journey through the diversity of Panamanian nature. Words cannot do justice to such splendor so the best thing to do is visit and experience Panamarama.

Building the Bridge

Three tectonic sculptures standing forty-six feet high represent the enormous geological forces that formed the Isthmus of Panama. This is what Bruce Mau calls the “device of wonder,” an element that is much larger than the rest and occupies nearly the entire gallery space, breaking with traditional museum organization. There is also an interactive video that shows how the tectonic plates moved, a process that began forty million years ago, even though the final piece of the bridge appeared a mere three million years ago. Another point of interest is the collection of rocks designed to show how they are analyzed by geologists to discover their origins. This is a tactile, physical encounter with the world of geology.

Worlds Collide

The formation of the bridge that is Panama gave rise to one of the largest migrations of species in the history of the planet in a two-way exchange between North and South America. This gallery presents the encounter through a great stampede of life-size animal sculptures, representing seventy-two of the species that crossed the Isthmus nearly three million years ago. These include examples of mega fauna (giant animals) such as the “terror bird,” one of the principal South American land predators, which was faster than a cheetah and had jaws strong enough to tear off heads with a single snap of its beak. Curiously, these enormous animals were the first to disappear as a result of the migration; marsupials from the south also fared badly.


The Human Path

We finally reach the gallery sponsored by Copa Airlines. This gallery is dedicated to the last animal to cross the Isthmus of Panama: the human. In a partly open-air space, sixteen columns relate the evolution of Panamanian civilization, from the first inhabitants to our day, as well as their interactions with nature over time, divided into four long periods: “The First Panamanians,” “Pre-Colombian Cultures,” “Colonial Panama,” and “The 20th Century and the Future.” One of the most interesting features of the gallery is that it has its own soundtrack, composed by renowned pianist Danilo Pérez, creator of the Panama International Jazz Festival. This is the only open-air exhibit precisely because one of the topics deals with how human beings adapt to nature. It is designed to give viewers a taste of Panamanian temperatures and the surrounding natural environment.

The three future galleries are: “Oceans Divided,” which will include two very tall semi-cylindrical aquariums that show the evolution of the Pacific and the Caribbean after they were separated by the emergence of the Isthmus; “The Web of Life,” featuring an enormous sculpture that is plant, animal, insect, and microorganism all at the same time, producing the effect of a dimension where all creatures are equally important; and “Panama is the Museum,” which will suggest to visitors that the most amazing attractions are outside the museum and can only be discovered by traveling around the country. Although it will be a while before they are ready, work is already underway, as Margot López tells us: “We are launching a second fund-raising phase. If we can start right away, we think that the Biomuseo will be finished in two years. I know it sounds like a long time, but the installation of the aquariums and the amphibian tank in the park is really complicated.”


Biomuseo Basics

Forty staff members, including guides and administrative personnel, keep the museum running.

The building has the capacity to host two thousand visitors a day. Up to 120 people can tour the five galleries in one hour, assuming a maximum of thirty people at a time spend ten to fifteen minutes in each gallery.

During the high season, tickets are sold for scheduled admission times, allowing visitors to tour the Museum in comfort without long lines.

In addition to audio guides, there are two or three guides in every gallery; guided tours are also available.

During the high season, the museum is open every day; during the low season, it is closed for maintenance on Tuesdays.


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