What is the museum's mission?
The museum began with a vision of developing a tourism strategy for Panama based on scientific research about the tropics. A small gathering of international experts was organized, including architect Frank Gehry, and the Biomuseo project was created as a part of a bigger plan. Both Frank Gehry and the Amador Foundation, which created the museum, wanted it to be a celebration of something important to Panamanians. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Panama joined the cause to contemplate what the mission of the museum would be. It was decided that the museum would promote awareness of biodiversity, the first project of its kind. The idea is to create not just an exhibition space, but a way of learning how we are supposed to live and design our sustainable future for the 21st Century. Our mission is first of all to teach the importance of biodiversity; to educate on not only what it is, but also on things that we must learn to do.
How did your partnership with Grupo Rey come about, and how did you manage to incorporate the museum within school curricula?
The idea is to try to bring each year an important number of students from public schools to the museum for free, but more importantly to make each visit a part of what they do in the classroom; to make schools and museums partners in education. We worked for three years developing this program with Grupo Rey, and we have trained over 3,000 teachers, even in remote areas. Grupo Rey donated $1 million for the implementation of this program even before the museum started and for several years to come thereafter.
What do visitors learn at the Biomuseo?
The museum teaches us about the important role that Panama plays in shaping the modern natural world. In the late 1980s, the Biomuseo started doing research on the geological history of the Isthmus of Panama. They discovered that about 40 million years ago, North and South America were separated, and the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean were one. Once Panama closed that gap, the oceans started changing; their currents changed, the temperature changed, the Caribbean was formed, and it created the Gulf Stream as we now know it. Many experts believe that it also triggered the Ice Ages, as the isthmus prevented warm water from reaching the North Pole. The Ice Age allowed man to cross over the Bering Strait and come to America. It transformed Africa, which used to be more like the Amazon, into a continent of deserts and savannahs, and in turn this climate change, some authors think, changed the way that man evolved. When we tell that story at the museum, we tell the story of how Panama shaped the world in a sense because it triggered all of these changes. One of the phrases in Steven M. Stanley's book, Children of the Ice Age, is that we are all Panamanian due to the central evolutionary role of the isthmus. This shifts the narrative for locals regarding their identity in relation to the natural landscape, and emphasizes to non-Panamanians the underlying unity of all our stories as humans on Earth. We are tied by nature all over the planet, which is the lesson of biodiversity that we want to teach. Every country should introduce itself in this way, because we all have amazing stories; this is the vision of the Biomuseo. In the same way that plants and animals use color to attract other organisms, we designed our blooming building in the middle of this amazing part of the city to attract visitors. In experiencing the museum, visitors actually realize that the whole building and the whole project is actually helping them to connect physically with nature, with the landscape, and with culture in a physical and emotional way.