Museum of Natural History’s new science and nature centre opens to New York public

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It can be a bit of jolt for visitors walking through Central Park to come across huge chunks of bedrock emerging from the landscape; to see the stuff this skyscraper city is built on. They might now experience a similar sense of surprise when they approach the new entrance to the American Museum of Natural History on the way into the park from Columbus Avenue. The new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, opening on 17 February, is a piece of architectural kintsugi that repairs and connects the disparate pavilions and buildings of the massive museum, is designed by the architects Studio Gang. It appears as an almost geological excrescence.

The entrance is a theatrical and bold addition to the museum, adding a new layer to a complex topography of architectural interventions dating back to the rocky and heavily rusticated original designs of J. Cleveland Cady from 1877. “The original plan was very organised, a four-square space around a central tower,” says Studio Gang founder Jeanne Gang. “But things quickly started getting filled in and it became complicated inside with all these dead ends.”

“The visitor experience was one of getting totally lost and constantly having to backtrack,” Gang says of the museum, which has an annual footfall of five million. “Of course, it’s not always a bad thing to get lost in a museum, but that was where we had to start, by fixing the flow.”

Stonehenge in the city

“There were 23 different buildings, and we created an axis on grade, accessible to Columbus Avenue with the old formal entrance with its steps remaining on the [Central] Park side.”

That axis is, in itself, an interesting phenomenon. Following in the footsteps of the Neo-druids and New-Agers who gather at Stonehenge in England on the summer solstice to witness the sun rising between the megaliths, New York has its own megalithic moment, the so-called Manhattanhenge, coined by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to describe the way the sun aligns with the cross-streets of the city grid. The canyons created by skyscrapers suddenly appear as geology, as a landscape carved out of the rock.

A rendering of the completed atrium, which includes the new Columbus Avenue entrance Neoscape Inc./© AMNH

Gang points to an image of people gathering to bathe in the yellowy light. She suggests that the idea of an architecture that blurs the line between the natural and the man-made, the topographic and the constructed, was at the heart of her ideas for a museum—one which explores not just life on earth but the planet itself.

Gang refers to a collage of a rocky canyon. “The first sketch,” she says, “was to make this a landscape of discovery.” She flicks through images of rocks and canyons; dramatic, almost alien scenes of strange geological formations. “We wanted to design the museum with nature and the earth,” she says. “So what is it about these landscapes that makes them so charismatic? The way they have been eroded by water, wind and time.”

Carving out ice blocks to mimic the often other-worldly forms of icebergs and ice caves, the architects arrived at this expressive form, a porous central atrium built using a sprayed concrete technology more usually seen in subway construction beneath the city’s streets. “It gives it the feel of a cave,” Gang says, “and the concrete itself is the finish and the colour, so there is no waste and no drywall [plasterboard].” In an intriguing twist of history, this process, called shotcrete, was invented by an employee of the museum more than a century ago. Taxidermist, biologist and photographer Carl Akeley invented the material (then called Gunite) in 1907 to rapidly and cheaply repair a building at the Field Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum of Natural History) in Gang’s home city of Chicago.

As well as an accessible, city-facing entrance, the new building accommodates a large new Invisible Worlds theatre where visitors can immerse themselves in experiential displays about everything from forests to microscopic environments. There will be a butterfly exhibit with real insects flitting about around the visitors in a vivarium with live plants and landscapes, and a new library which will make accessible and visible the museum’s vast collections.

“There will be school classes in there, right in one of the greatest natural history collections in the world,” Gang says. “It comes at a time when we need modern, technologically current science education spaces and opportunities more than ever,” adds the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter. At the centre of the library is a huge stalk, the visible presence of the structure transferring its load back down to the bedrock. With a striated ceiling radiating outwards, it resembles the gills of a huge mushroom, a striking image in light of evolving knowledge about the centrality of fungi to the development of life on earth.

Embracing all of this is an illuminated Collections Core, a five-storey vitrine that envelops the spaces and allows the institution to display a tiny part of the four million specimens housed in the Gilder Centre (itself only 12% of the museum’s collection). That feature—Gang describes it as “a building within a building”—also allows natural light to penetrate the heart of the museum and its series of openings, which appear as if carved into the rock by natural forces.

A bug’s life

Of all the exhibits, perhaps the butterflies will cause the greatest flutter. It seems a bit of a trend at the moment—even Singapore’s Changi Airport now has a butterfly garden—but the idea of setting live creatures amid the stuffed and fossilised exhibits is not without controversy. “It is dangerous to have live insects in a museum,” Gang says—moths and woodworm loom large in conservators’ worst nightmares. But, when asked about the ethics of the project, she says: “Well, you’d have to ask the butterflies. Visitors pass through an airlock and the insects will be living their lives, mating, harvesting food and nectar, making cocoons, all in natural lights and among real plants. They don’t live very long, perhaps only a week. Our task is to make people want to protect them, to see the wonder of nature.”

It is also, Gang suggests, the moment for museums to come to the fore. “It’s a time to get people to fall in love with science, to trust facts,” she says. This remarkable new building, which has cost $431m, might just be a gateway for that trust, inculcated through wonder and awe and helped along, a little, by the architecture.

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