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Construction in progress at the new Gilder Center.
Photograph: By Timothy Schenck / Courtesy of AMNH

Peek inside the cavernous American Museum of Natural History expansion

It's set to open on February 17, 2023.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
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Rossilynne Skena Culgan
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Along Columbus Avenue by the American Museum of Natural History, a few porthole-shaped windows in the construction barricade offer a glimpse at the work happening there. But we got to go beyond the barriers for a hardhat tour inside the construction of the museum’s new 230,000-square-foot Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation—and we’re bringing you along. 

Set to open on February 17, 2023, the Gilder Center will include 4 million scientific specimens, an insectarium with all kinds of critters including New York City bugs, a vivarium with real butterflies, state-of-the-art classrooms and a vast library. A new immersive experience called “Invisible Worlds” will explore everything from the depths of the oceans to the inner workings of the human brain. The Gilder Center will link with the original museum, not just connecting to the space but alleviating the building’s awkward dead ends. 

RECOMMENDED: The hidden treasures of the American Museum of Natural History

The museum will debut “in a time when the need for science literacy has never been more urgent,” AMNH President Ellen Futter said. Here’s a look at what’s inside the new space: 

Construction in progress at the new Gilder Center.
Photograph: By Timothy Schenck / Courtesy of AMNH

A cavernous atrium 

Architects from Studio Gang studied caves and canyons for inspiration, and their research paid off in a soaring four-story atrium with dramatic curves and recesses. The entryway feels elegant and modern—and invites visitors to crane their necks skyward to the skylights above. 

A rendering of the new exhibition space.
Photograph: By Neoscape / A rendering of the new exhibition space.

Millions of scientific specimens 

Collections are the heart of any natural history museum, so it’s only fitting that they’ll be organized in the five-story Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Collections Core. Floor-to-ceiling exhibits will represent topics including paleontology, geology, anthropology, archaeology and vertebrate and invertebrate biology. The Gilder Center will feature nearly 4 million scientific specimens. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that’s only 12 percent of the museum’s entire collection.

An insectarium 

Museum curators want you to get up close and personal with creepy crawly critters from ants to honeybees in the 5,000-square-foot Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Insectarium. The exhibition will even feature the bugs of New York City, including a soundtrack of Central Park’s insects. 

Through watching live insects, seeing artistic renderings, peering at bugs through microscopes and exploring dioramas, staff want to highlight the importance of insects, AMNH's Vice President for Exhibition Lauri Halderman said. 

“We wanted people to see insects differently,” Halderman said.  

People tend to fear what they don’t know, so it’s important to see these critters in a new light, said David Grimaldi, curator for the museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology.

“Insects are amazingly intricate and beautiful when you see them up close,” he said. 

Football-sized honeybees mounted overhead will lead to a monumental hive at the end of the space. To get there, you’ll pass under a transparent skybridge built as a route for live leafcutter ants. 

The butterfly experience with people walking through lush vegetation and butterflies flying about.
Photograph: By Neoscape / Here's what the new butterfly area is expected to look like.

Interactions with butterflies 

Speaking of insects, up to 80 species of butterflies will fly through the 3,000-square-foot Davis Family Butterfly Vivarium year-round—one might even land on you. 

In the gallery, you can observe butterflies as they flit about the space and learn how these beautiful winged insects serve as one of nature’s vital environmental barometers. 

A rendering of the new library with books and soaring ceilings.
Photograph: By Neoscape / A rendering of the new library.

Opportunities for learning

Education is foundational to the space, and there are opportunities for people of all ages to learn something new. Students can attend programming in 18 newly built, renovated or repurposed classrooms. The classrooms offer flexible, fully wired spaces so students can explore more deeply what they’re seeing on the exhibit floor. 

A public library on the fourth floor will house a reading room, exhibition alcove, group study room and programming. The museum’s rare book collection will also be located in this space, officially called The David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Research Library and Learning Center. It’ll be the largest free-standing natural history library in the western hemisphere, Futter said.

A look at the Invisible Worlds exhibit space.
Photograph: By Timothy Schenck / Courtesy of AMNH

A new immersive science-and-art experience

Inside Invisible Worlds, AMNH offers its take on the immersive exhibit trend, but takes the experience to the next level with interactivity. Projections, featuring everything from the deep sea to the human brain, will fill 23-foot-high walls, making the unseen seen. With interactivity on the floor, visitors can metaphorically send off neurons in the brain and splash water. 

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