The American Museum of Natural History is all systems go with its Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. The 235,000-square-foot wing, designed by lauded architecture firm Studio Gang, will profoundly expand the museum’s research, educational, and exhibition capacity. The extent of its enlarged capabilities were expressed on Wednesday, at a presentation attended by the architect, museum president, and some of the institution’s foremost thinkers.
The wing’s exterior, inspired by forms in nature like melting ice and slot canyons, has already been the subject of plenty of praise and scrutiny. It won the unanimous approval of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in October, following an animated discussion between the community, architect, and museum about reducing the building’s footprint on the surrounding Theodore Roosevelt Park.
Much less attention has been paid to the addition’s interiors—but for Studio Gang and the museum’s esteemed staff, including star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, its exhibition halls and educational space, collections core, and Butterfly Vivarium are the improvements that will elevate the institution to a place of discovery befitting the 21st century. (Particularly at a time when critical thinking and science education are more crucial than ever.)
The team’s excitement over the addition is palpable. “It’s the organic, uplifting spirit of exploration and discovery that truly animated the new center,” museum president Ellen Futter said on Wednesday at a presentation of the new wing. “We need facilities that align with how people think today.” To achieve that, the Gilder Center will come positively laden with techy amenities, like a 9,520-square-foot immersive venue called the Invisible Worlds Theater, where visitors will be able to experience authentic science visualizations of things that aren’t viewable by the naked eye. Consider it a Hayden Planetarium for the molecular level.
Another key element of the Gilder Center will be its large-scale Interpretive Wall, where visitors will be able to explore contemporary concepts in science through video, data imagery, and interactive exhibits. On the less tech-heavy, but equally important side will be the museum’s new Insectarium—the institution’s first gallery specifically dedicated to insects in more than 50 years—and its 3,000-square-foot Butterfly Vivarium, where visitors will be able to directly observe and interact with the winged insects.
As much as the Gilder Center will be a place to display a fraction of the museum’s 33 million specimens and objects, it will also be a place for education and research. New and renovated classrooms will make up the museum’s most comprehensive addition of education space since 1928 and will allow it to keep up the rigorous tradition of providing equitable access to information for visitors and aspiring scientists alike. “One of the values of this institution for almost 150 years has been issues of equity and access, making the doors of this museum as open as we possibly can,” Lisa Gugenheim, the museum’s Senior VP for Institutional Advancement, Strategic Planning, and Education, said.
Neil deGrasse Tyson also impressed on the importance of the museum’s access: “Who knows how many great scientists have not manifested for the absence of opportunity?” It will become a question with fewer answers with the Gilder Center and the museum’s deep record of partnership with the city’s public schools.
The Gilder Center will also do the hard work of detangling the knotty corridors that abut the addition, creating 30 new connections across 10 locations. Studio Gang is keyed into the fact that wayfinding throughout the museum is, to put it bluntly, a nightmare. “Flow was a key concept for us,” Gang said of both the addition’s appearance and function. The addition, with its five-story central exhibition hall, will help orient visitors and allow them to see where the activities they want to visit are located. It’ll also serve up a primo viewing spot for Manhattanhenge, as the museum sits squarely on the grid and the Gilder Center points due west. (“I was all up in that when I saw it,” Tyson told Gang when she pointed that detail out.)
The total projected budget is $340 million—up from the initial estimate of $325 million—but the museum has already raised more than $277 million from public and private institutions to help realize the Gilder Center. It’s expected to open in 2020.
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