We found the much anticipated Biomuseum designed by architect Frank Gherry whose wife, we are told, is from Panama. I am sure she had a great deal of influence on the design and installation of this amazing museum. The roof with its many colorful tiles scattered about like brightly colored leaved makes this building stand out with a statement of its own. But under the roof it gets even better. As you get closer to the museum you can see that the bright orange, yellow and blue metallic canopies are part of a “tropical forest” designed with colorful leaves supported by “branches “ and “roots”. This open tree spaced entrance offers a connection to the environment around it framing palm trees, the soft blue of Panama Bay, and in the distance, a soft green colored mountain that used to be a volcano millions of years ago. A perfect segway into the contents of this wonderful museum.
The museum is still growing but what we did see was truly impressive. In their literature the museum says “the Biomuseo tells the story of the importance of Panama in the creation of the world as we know it.” It definitely lives up to that promise. We began by walking through the Gallery of Biodiversity. On display was an introduction to Panama’s amazing natural heritage. This area went on to describe the importance of maintaining biodiversity by showing photographs of the many species who are no longer with us. Further inside the museum a sign said “When the isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, it changed life on earth in countless ways. Today this Bridge of Life hosts an astonishing wealth of biodiversity, and is the nexus of a multitude of connections - climatic, biological, and cultural - that link the globe.” Today Panama is a bridge between the continents and a barrier between oceans producing a profound effect on the global environment.
With these thoughts in mind we entered a dark room and stood as the room exploded with color, animals, birds and all manner of species that surrounded us on all sides even under our feet flew, stampeded, swam, and made their way in their various environments. For over 5 minutes we were immersed in the jungles of Panama. From leafcutter ants to blue morpho butterflies, to howler monkeys to mountain tops, rain storms, birds on the fly. Rushing waters, jungle flowers, oceans and the wildlife therein, while whales and turtles swam under our feet and above our heads all manner of frogs, butterflies… all to amazing indigenous drum and animal sounds. It took our breath away. Overall three hundred species were flashed by in the three level “Panamarama” projection space with 10 screens that swept us away. There are more species in Panama than Brazil. Even Jane Goodall said she was very, very impressed. I think I have to come back.
Leaving this “theater” we began to explore the geological world as the earth formed. I touched pillow basalt that originated underwater about 70 million years ago, peridotite that was formed by magma, and fine grained limestone formed underwater between 15 and 16 million years ago. In another room we walked beneath and around giant life-sized ancient species that once roamed the earth. Giant sloths as tall as a tree, and other large animals stampede toward each other as you walk observing their enormous bodies. Most of the large animals that lived in Panama became extinct by 10,000 BC. The largest land animal to survive is the Tapir.
The Biomuseo was created in one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The movement of plants and animals between North and South America known as the Great Biotic Interchange began millions of years ago but its results are still very evident in Panama today. Anthropological and genetic evidence indicates that the first people to arrive in the Americas came from northwest Asia but it is still a guess as to whether they arrived by land or along the coast in boats or possibly both. Today more than 45% of Panama is still forested and more than 50 protected areas cover over 30% of the national territory. But resources and staff to safeguard such a large area are very limited.
There were more exhibits in the open area near the exit and a gift store that went unvisited by us. I could have spent another hour or two more in the museum and the gardens surrounding it along Panama Bay but sadly we were dragged away to our bus to the next venue of the day. And this museum was not included in our tour, we had to pay to get in. As we left the museum we could see men clinging to the slanted tiles as they cleaned and or painted them in the hot sun. Not a job any of us would want.