Panama City’s Biomuseo

Opened in late-2014, the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo focuses on Panama's biodiversity and how the isthmus of Panama has changed the world.

The first thing you notice about Panama City’s Biomuseo is the building. There’s nothing subtle about it–it’s an explosion of color. It was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry and is the first of his buildings in Latin America.

It stands by itself on the Amador Causeway, a sliver of low-lying land linking a few small islands protecting the entrance of the Panama Canal. The only building nearby is the old Army-Navy-Air Force club building, a single-story box that’s presumably a lot less busy now that Panama no longer has an Army and minimal naval and air forces.

The symbolism is laid on thick. The colors of the roof are a nod to the colors of the tropics. When you stand inside the main foyer and look up, it’s designed to bring to mind a Panamanian rainforest’s tree canopy. If you look out in one direction, you see the waters of the Pacific, while out the other you see the waters of the Panama Canal, with water on both sides of an isthmus that symbolizes the way Panama itself straddles two oceans.

The general theme of the museum is Panama’s biodiversity and Panama’s influence on global biodiversity and ecology. The museum’s tagline is “discover how Panama changed the world.” There’s more to that than nationalistic marketing spin. I really had no idea how important Panama was–frankly, I hadn’t given it any thought before–but the museum maps it out very well indeed.

Much of it comes down to formation of Panama itself. Millions of years ago, the North and South American continents were separate, with a wide channel running between them linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But around 3 million years ago, thanks to a combination of volcanic activity in the areas of what are now Nicaragua and Guatemala as wall as in the Caribbean, which in turn encourage sedimentation deposits to build up, eventually a land bridge was formed and the channel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans closed off.

That had two profound effects. One was that animals that had been isolated in one or other of the continents could not disperse into the other. Some species survived that intermingling, but many didn’t. The museum does a superb job highlighting the ones that didn’t make it.

The other profound effect was that ocean currents were totally disrupted. That, in turn, affected weather patterns not just in North and South America but even as far away as Africa and Europe.

All in all, it seems Panama–or at least the isthmus that country of Panama now covers–really has influenced the world in incredibly profound ways.

Panamarama

After some introductory exhibits explaining what biodiversity is and why it matters, in a section called the Gallery of Biodiversity, you’re directed into a film room. Now, I’ve been shepherded into so many crappy and dated films in museums that I find myself rolling my eyes whenever there is one, and I’ll often skip it if I can. But this one isn’t crappy at all–in fact, it’s really cool.

It’s an immersive experience demonstrating all sorts of aspects of Panamanian wildlife, climate, and ecosystem. It’s only about 6 minutes long, but I wish it was longer. There are 8 large screens surrounding the room on 3 sides, overhead, and even underneath the glass floor. It puts you in the rainforest, underneath the oceans, and on the beaches of Panama. It is really well done and has a definite wow factor. So I recommend sticking around for it.

Building the Bridge

The next section focuses on the formation of the Panamanian isthmus beginning about 40 million years ago. And that means lots of rocks and fossils. So if you’re into geology, it’ll be right up your alley.

Even if rocks aren’t your cup of tea, stop at the end of the geology section to check out the small exhibit on earthquakes of the region. Computer graphics display the earthquake activity in Central America and the Caribbean int the previous two weeks, and it’s amazing how much there is. You can even jump on the spot–you’re encouraged to do so–to see if the effects measured on the spectrometer.

Worlds Collide

The next exhibit focuses on the effects on the animal kingdom of the creation of the land bridge between North and South America. In this room they have life-sized models of those animals, from the giant ground sloth to sabre-tooth cats to giant armadillos the tiniest frogs. Large touchscreen panels provide interactive guides to what’s what, and on one wall a large video panel displays an animation of what some of these animals would have looked like in person.

For now, the audio guide section ends, so once you’ve handed in your handsets you can head downstairs.

The Human Path

The exhibit downstairs focuses on the impact of human habitation in the region, from the earliest humans here through the Spanish invasion through the creation of the Panama Canal, covering a span of about 15,000 years.

It’s in an area directly under the main atrium and consists of a series of panels on colorful columns that guides you through chronologically.

A Work in Progress

The Biomuseo has been open to visitors since October 2014, but it’s still a work in progress with more exhibits to be built out.

The southern wing currently houses a temporary exhibit on giant sharks, but that area will eventually have two large aquariums, one representing the marine life of the Pacific and the other the marine life of the Atlantic. A number of other enhancements are also planned, and you can see scale models of the planned expansions in one of the exhibit spaces upstairs in the southern wing.

The Biomuseo is new, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does. Personally, I think it’s added a new highlight to a visit to Panama City and is well worth the short cab ride out to visit.

Photos of Panama City’s Biomuseo

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

Photo by David Coleman. How to license & download this image.

What To Know Before You Go

  • It’s a quick cab ride from Casco Viejo and shouldn’t cost you more than $3-$5 one-way (it’s always worth agreeing on a price before you get in, because Panamanian taxis don’t use meters). There seems to be enough taxis dropping people off that it’s not hard to get a return cab whenever you need one. If there are none around, the staff seem unusually helpful and will no doubt call you one.
  • There’s a cafe on site. If you’re after something a bit more substantial, there are a bunch of restaurants a little further down to the Causeway towards Isla Flamenco (or Flamenco Port).
  • The entry ticket isn’t cheap–$22 for an adult–but it does include an audio tour. And at least it’s going to a good cause of sustaining the museum.
  • You can find opening hours and information about special events on the Biomuseo’s official website.

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Travel Advice for Panama

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Panama (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Panama here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Panama here.

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