Question: Where in the world did a $2,500-per-square foot museum take longer to build than one of man’s greatest feats of engineering?
Answer: The Biomuseo of Panama City, Panama
You can’t miss the Biomuseo, the 43,000-square-foot museum at the eastern gateway of the Panama Canal. It’s the architectural equivalent of a toucan, plumed in vivid red, yellow, orange, blue, and green. With its overlapping rooftops painted a riot of colors, it’s a museum all aflutter.
It earned its show-offy nature. The first Latin American creation of fabled architect Frank Gehry (whose wife is Panamanian), it was supposed to be the first grand project after the handover of the Panama Canal from the United States in 1999. But the project, greenlit that very year, ran into trouble with financing and, as Panamanian president administrations changed, had to win approval again and again. By the time it was built, 15 years had passed (more than the decade it took for the U.S. to complete the canal itself) and the cost had risen to more than $100 million (around $2,500 per square foot). Even though it has been open and busy for four years, it’s technically not finished. (See below)
The museum highlights the biodiversity of Panama and the country’s role in connecting the flora and fauna of the Americas, while revealing that the isthmus is home to more bird, mammal, and reptile species than the U.S. and Canada combined. From the bones of an extinct giant sloth to the bird songs being piped into galleries, it paints an ecological portrait of life well beyond the shipping lanes. The displays extend outside; the grounds include gardens where butterflies and tropical birds dart among the flowers and trees.
Though some Panamanians grouse that it cost too much and took too long, the Biomuseo has won multiple accolades, including from Trip Expert, Leading Culture Destinations, and the Engineering Excellence Awards. Like the canal that preceded it, the Biomuseo was well worth the wait.
What to See at the Biomuseo
- In the Gallery of Biodiversity, the region’s show-stopping ecological wonders are on display in a massive stained-glass mural, 45 feet long by 25 feet high.
- Prepare for sensory overload in the Panamarama, a ten-screen, three-story multimedia projection intended to immerse you in the rainforest.
- When you thread your way through Building the Bridge, you might feel like you’ve stepped into an alien world, where rock pylons (containing elements like 6-million-year-old sandstone and 70-million-year-old basalt) thrust upward from the floor at all angles.
- No need to be afraid of the stampede depicted in Worlds Collide, a cacophonous tableau of 97 animals depicted in cross-migration between continents, some of them big enough to climb aboard, and all of them crafted from epoxy so you may touch them.
- The indoor-outdoor Human Path tells the story of the arrival of humans on the isthmus 15,000 years ago, with color-coded columns outlining the history, and leading you to continue your explorations in the gardens and at the frog pond.
- Opening within the year are two more galleries, Oceans Divided (a pair of 30-foot-tall aquariums showing the difference between Pacific and Caribbean sea life) and The Living Web (a massive living sculpture that is part plant, animal, insect, and microorganism). Finally, the museum will really be finished.
Visit the Biomuseo and discover the many ecosystems of the isthmus when you join us for Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United.