When it opens next winter, The American Museum of Natural History's new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation will completely change how we experience the museum.
The 153-year-old museum has seen its share of additions over the years—there are about two dozen buildings that make up AMNH—but the massive new 230,000-square-foot facility will bring about an AMNH as we've never seen before.
On a small hardhat tour of the $431 million Gilder Center this week, we learned that it will be a striking addition, featuring "organic" architecture that mimics nature akin to glacier caves with a cavernous, four-story atrium, the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploration Atrium, with sky bridges that visitors can cross to get to and from its different galleries.
"The organic nature of this building was intentional because this is a building of discovery and you're on a journey and you can feel it in this brilliant architecture," said AMNH President Ellen V. Futter.
Even the Center's windows are amorphous but allow visitors to see how their surroundings complement the Theodore Roosevelt Park outside and those passing by to easily see inside. (AMNH officials say that since the Gilder Center's entrance and atrium are aligned with West 79th Street, it'll have the best view of Manhattanhenge in town.)
And they'll want to see inside—through giant windows, the Gottesman Research Library and Learning Center will wow with its giant, sweeping column and massive amounts of research at visitors' fingertips on the fourth floor. On the third floor, the Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Collections Core will showcase three stories of research and collections spaces giving never-before-seen glimpses into the museum’s scientific specimens and displays, from fossils to insects. About four million artifacts will be on view (that's just 12 percent of its collection, which is the largest in the Western Hemisphere) and visitors can watch scientists actually study these items through glass.
"The importance of this is that the collections are actually the evidence on which the scientific work is based and it makes the point that these ideas and scientific beliefs don't come out of nowhere but rather they're based on observation of real things and places—observing, testing and proving to get to a scientific theory," Futter said on the tour. "The collections here are dramatic across every single area of the museums' holdings and there will be ways of looking through them. You'll get to see scientists and lab folks working on the collections at certain times."
"It's a living collection" added Jeanne Gang, the founding principal and partner at Studio Gang. The evidence is "not tucked away in the bowels..but up front," she said.
The Gilder Center will also have the first gallery in more than 50 years dedicated to insects called the Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Insectarium on the first floor. It'll house 5,000 square feet of both exotic and native insects with live, pinned, graphic, and digital displays, oversized models of honeybees overhead leading to a giant hive. A transparent sky bridge will serve as a route for living leafcutter ants that will travel to and from a fungal garden embedded in the wall—it'll be one of the world’s largest displays of leafcutter ants.
Similarly, there will be more space than ever dedicated to butterflies. The 3,000-square-foot Davis Family Butterfly Vivarium, which will be larger than the current seasonal display of butterflies, will be a permanent exhibition. Visitors will still be able to walk among the fluttering beauties here.
And finally, perhaps one of the most impressive elements coming to AMNH in the Gilder Center is the 360-degree Invisible Worlds Theater, where science and art come together in an interactive and immersive way through the use of infrared cameras. Visitors will be able to "swim" in the ocean, make brain neurons fire, chase a flock of birds and water the roots of trees in the theater, which will be the size of a hockey rink with 23-foot-tall walls.
There will also be state-of-the-art classrooms—the Josh and Judy Weston Middle School Learning Zone, the High School Learning Zone, and the College and Career Readiness Zone, with adjacent renovated spaces in the existing Museum complex creating the Michael Vlock Family Learning Zone and a Teacher Learning Zone. These spaces and the exciting additions in the Gilder Center are all meant to foster science-based learning, exploration and discovery.
AMNH President Futter told The New York Times that the Gilder Center comes at a time when it's needed most.
"It’s only become more intensified and urgent in a post-truth world where we also have acute threats to human health in the form of the pandemic and to the environment," she said. "At the same time, we have a crisis in science literacy and education in this country and we have denial of science. This is a building for our time."
The Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History is planned to open next winter.
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