Travel Story Panama's Biomuseo showcases one of the world’s richest ecosystems

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

It's hoped the Frank Gehry-designed museum may have a similar effect as the star architect's Guggenheim had for Bilbao.

When Panama finally rose to completely separate the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, life on Earth changed.

The isthmus between North and South America had progressively risen over millions of years, first cutting off deep marine systems and then progressively shallower ones.

But when Panama finally became unbroken land three million years ago, it altered big oceanic patterns and played a significant role in profound climate changes.

Two big aquariums evolved separately either side, in the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea, this big eddy on the edge of the Atlantic.

It forced changes further afield, too. The now warm, saltier Caribbean surges northwards as the Gulf Stream, meets colder waters, sinks to the bottom and drives what scientists call a “conveyor belt” of currents that pump around the world.

Where the water temperature in the Atlantic might be 23C, in the Pacific at the same moment it might be 18C. Two different marine worlds were created.

And all this is acknowledged and explained at Biomuseo, a museum of biodiversity in Panama.

Biomuseo perches dramatically on a ribbon of land — a colour jigsaw by renowned California-based architect Frank Gehry, and the only building designed by Gehry in Latin America.

A spokesperson for Biomuseo says the hope is that the building will become an international symbol for Panama. “The museum may have a similar effect as Gehry’s Guggenheim design had for Bilbao.”

The last time I mentioned Gehry, I was in Arles, in the south of France. Gehry designed the building for LUMA Arles — a contemporary art centre to bring together artists, researchers, and creators to collaborate on multi-disciplinary works. Better known for the paintings Vincent van Gogh produced in a creatively frenzied 15 months there, Arles also has a contemporary artistic future.

Biomuseo is a not dissimilar project. It has eight major galleries, through which the chapters of Panama’s story unfold — and there is a real sense of art and science intersecting to tell that story.

This Central American isthmus is one of the world’s richest ecosystems, with more bird, mammal and reptile species than the US and Canada combined.

The Panamarama uses 10 screens to reveal Panama’s natural wonders. In the Building the Bridge gallery, 14m high rock formations illustrate the emergence of the isthmus. In the Gallery of Biodiversity, there’s a 14m-long, 8m-high multicoloured stained glass.

Biomuseo is an affiliate of America’s Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, Panama is the only country outside the US, with museums affiliated to the Smithsonian.

The spokesperson explains that a combined team of experts from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Panama developed the Biomuseo’s scientific content.

Together, the science, the building, and this spot on Amador Causeway tell a unique story.

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