The colourful roof of Panama’s Biomuseo designed by the world-famous architect Frank Gehry rises above the horizon of the Amador Causeway. Located along the entrance of the Panama Canal, the causeway used to be owned by the USA and was left barren after Panama regained its territory on 31 December 1999. Frank Gehry’s Panamanian wife took part in the discussions about what to do with the land, and soon crucial decisions were made to build the extravagant Biomuseo.
Like with any others of Gehry’s designs we have seen, such as the Dancing House in Prague, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao or the Tower 8 at Spruce Street Lower Manhattan, the design leaves some room for imagination. From the quiet terrace of the museum, the view on the botanical garden next to it, and on the ships entering the Panama Canal heading towards the bridge of the Americas represents the biodiversity of Panama and the linkage of South and North America.
As his first Latino American building, Gehry insisted on it having a strong meaning and tell a story: the Biomuseo describes the impact the creation of the Isthmus of Panama has had on the whole planet.
Early this morning, we enter following a group of schoolkids, as the museum is quite educational and interactive.
Million-year old fossils are showcased along high-tech interactive screens to describe the formation of the isthmus that links South and North America together, creating Panama several millions of years ago (researchers believe it may be way more than 3 million years ago, as usually agreed upon). With this isthmus, animals started migrating leading to an interchange of species (the great American biotic interchange), and a new distribution of the food chain. Many of these ancient species have disappeared after deadly fights for survival. Standing close to a real-size sculpture of a 4-metre giant sloth or sabretooth tiger puts things into perspective.
This new route completely changed the world, reorganizing the oceanic currents, by creating two very different oceans. The closure of the isthmus modified their salinity*, with the Atlantic saltier than the Pacific, causing the development of the Great Oceanic Conveyor Belt, a system of deep and surface oceanic currents. These currents altered climates causing a new period of Ice Ages**. The vegetation was impacted and as eastern Africa became drier, forests lost ground to grassland. If there are still many unknowns as to why man started walking on two legs, several theories state it was to adapt better to a savannah environment: the closure of the Isthmus of Panama would have had a critical impact on the evolution of humankind.
One of the highlights of the museum for us was a visual tour of Panama shown on about a dozen screens from floor to ceiling, entitled Panamarana. This amazing short movie showcases the incredibly rich biodiversity Panama has to offer, some of which we were lucky enough to observe like the red frogs of Bastimentos, the leafcutter ants of the jungles, the sleepy sloths of the forests, the underwater world of the Atlantic coast, the quetzal in the mountains of Boquete… And many others that make us both want to come back to this extremely varied country.
Marcella & Claire
* The trade winds blowing on the isthmus during the dry season evaporated a lot of humidity on the Atlantic that would then be rain on the Pacific as rain. The Caribbean Sea became saltier, warmer and with less nutrients than the Pacific.
** With a lower salinity, the sea froze at higher temperatures and more sea ice formed. As sunlight is reflected by ice and snow, the ice cap spread.
- Underneath the museum itself, an informative free exhibition about the history of Panama is displayed. The small botanical gardens are also accessible free of charge.
- Allow about two hours to visit the museum in depth.
- Take a visual tour of Panama!
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