NEW YORK (AP) — The American Museum of Natural History in New York is about to open its new building, radical architecture designed to connect visitors with their place in the natural world.
Tiny ants march along a glass bridge overhead in the museum’s new wing, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Giant whales swoop down the walls in an immersive video display. And the building’s natural curves, inspired by the canyons of the Southwest, are meant to highlight how everything is interwoven.
The $465 million center, which has been under construction for nearly a decade, will open to the public next Thursday, adding a new wow factor to one of the most visited museums in the world.
Architect Jeanne Gang said in a media preview Wednesday that she wondered how the space might contribute to people’s natural desire to learn. “That led us to look at geological landscapes, where you can see how natural forces actually shape the material, shape our world,” she said.
The Gilder Center is already home to more than half a million tiny inhabitants, residing in an insect exhibit featuring 18 species of living creatures and an indoor garden where visitors can mingle with hundreds of moths and butterflies.
The goal is to get people “up close and personal” with insects and highlight their importance to the natural world, said museum entomologist David Grimaldi.
“Insects get a bad rap from this tiny fraction of biting or disease-transmitting insects,” Grimaldi said. But most insect species pose no danger to humans and are an essential part of their larger ecosystems, she said.
Brightly colored butterflies flit around a garden – which is kept warm and humid to mimic their tropical homes – while giant beetles munch on rotting fruit.
And then there are the ants: The museum has shipped some 500,000 leaf-cutter ants to build a huge colony in the insectarium. The tiny workers harvest their leaves from a glass fence, then march across a suspension bridge to grow their fungal feasts in large glass bulbs along the wall.
The ants needed help adjusting to the space: Scientists had to hold “training sessions” to show them where to go, said Cheryl Hayashi, the museum’s science director. They have since settled into their new home.
A new interactive show highlights the ways in which our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. “Invisible Worlds” immerses visitors in several interactive scenes, alternately zooming in to show proteins in human DNA and neural connections in the brain, or zooming out to a vantage point above the New York City skyline or a rainforest canopy .
“Through DNA, you are related to all life on Earth,” the narrative declares.
The Gilder Center is also designed to bring the scientific process to the fore, said museum president Sean Decatur.
More than 4 million specimens from the museum’s collections are now housed in the Gilder Center, some displayed through large glass windows.
This “Collections Core” showcases a huge range of objects, from megalodon teeth to Mayan bricks to coils of spider silk, and gives visitors a peek into the things science is based on: “We literally show our evidence,” Hayashi said.
Building trust in the scientific process is more important than ever, said Ellen Futter, a former museum president who oversaw most of the Gilder Center’s creation before retiring in March.
“That’s the vision: to help visitors see and understand our world more deeply,” said Futter. “To appreciate that all life is interdependent. Trust the science and be inspired to protect our precious planet.”
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