Discovering the Secrets of the Gilder Center

Discovering the Secrets of the Gilder Center

The American Museum of Natural History has always been known for creatures — just not more than a million live ones.

That may change, however, as a result of its Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Since this new wing opened in May, almost 1.5 million people have visited the museum, and most are thought to have explored the four floors of the Gilder Center that are open to the public. But even repeat visitors like me are still discovering its many attractions, including crawling and flying animals, mostly of the small but mighty variety. Where else in Manhattan can you encounter a Hercules beetle or poison dart frogs?

But the center, which was designed by the architect Jeanne Gang and her firm, Studio Gang, has more than wiggly wildlife. Described by Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The New York Times, as “a poetic, joyful, theatrical work,” it also includes a towering behind-the-scenes show of collections, a library with its own display gallery and an immersive digital experience. Here are six highlights.

On recent visits, I observed two live Eastern lubbers — a type of grasshopper — locked in what looked like a passionate embrace. I also viewed, on video, a katydid ruthlessly demolishing one of its own. But the Insectarium emphasizes that when such creatures aren’t making love or war, most are engaged in vital activities, like pollinating plants and decomposing dead matter.

“How do you get people to care about this when they have this perception that insects need to be squashed?” asked David Grimaldi, one of the Insectarium’s curators, as he and another curator, Jessica Ware, walked me through the gallery. The answer, he said, “is to bring them up close and personal with insects.”

Hence this 5,000-square-foot installation, where about a million live leafcutter ants shred leaves and busily carry the pieces through transparent tunnels to enclosed nests. Visitors can also admire a colony of honeypot ants: These living pantries store sugary material in their abdomens, which they regurgitate for their fellows.

In addition to 18 live insect species, the space has about 350 specimens, along with touch screens and other interactive elements. A digital game inside an 8,000-pound resin model of a honeybee hive invites visitors to “Be a Bee,” while two displays allow museumgoers to create “insect orchestras” by pushing buttons that deliver bug sounds.

While I couldn’t share Ware’s opinion of the cockroach species — “They’re so beautiful” — I had to agree with a tween visitor’s summation of the entire experience: “So gross but so cool.”

Viewing the Collections Core, which comprises more than 3,000 specimens and artifacts — from a goblin spider as seen through a scanning electron microscope to the giant footprint of a hadrosaur — is like going backstage at a monumental theater production. But here, the drama is scientific investigation.

“We really wanted to be more transparent about our role as a science institution,” said Lauri Halderman, the museum’s vice president for exhibition.

And transparent they are. Consisting of floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed spaces on three floors, the core features an intriguing fraction of what is usually kept in storage. The glass surfaces also contain digital screens and interactive panels, so that adjacent to a group of corals, I could watch a video about how the curator Nathalie Goodkin uses those specimens to study both ocean history and current climate change.

“While some of the specimens are hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years old, they’re really relevant for us now,” Halderman said.

The collections also reveal how much of the museum’s research is anthropological, archaeological or cultural. Here you will find Chaco Canyon pottery — centuries-old jars, bowls, animal-shaped vessels and ceramic and stone pipes unearthed in New Mexico — as well as Maya bricks. You can also investigate souvenirs of Mao Zedong’s era in China: decorated enamelware plates and mugs that encouraged citizens to savor the chairman’s poetry and sayings along with their meals.

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly specimens are also in the Collections Core — he was an amateur lepidopterist — but if you want to see their live counterparts, don’t miss this display, which requires a separate admission ticket. Almost twice the size of the museum’s former annual temporary exhibition (“The Butterfly Conservatory”), the Davis vivarium is a year-round space featuring as many as 80 live species on any day. They range from the nickel-size Atala hairstreak butterfly to the aptly named Atlas moth, with a wingspan wider than a human palm.

The creatures mostly flutter free in the junglelike atmosphere, roosting on leaves, drinking juice from fruit slices and occasionally ganging up at a window like eager toddlers. The space also includes a glass-fronted pupae incubator — a kind of butterfly maternity ward — and signs identifying species and behavior.

“They have taste receptors in their feet,” said Hazel Davies, the museum’s director of living exhibits. They also smell with their antennas.

And yes, they will land on observers. “They love bald men’s heads,” Davies said. Because male butterflies require sodium for mating, she explained, “they’ll drink the salt in the sweat.”

Who knew that rats laugh? Or that ravens point? These are among the odd facts visitors learn from the interactive stations leading to the immersive 360-degree experience “Invisible Worlds,” which also requires a separate ticket.

The destination, a 23-foot-tall oval event space with a mirrored ceiling, is like a combination of an IMAX movie theater and a theme park ride. The 12-minute narrated expedition, which uses some real footage but mostly computer graphics, makes a largely unperceived universe of biology and technology visible and audible. Stops include a dragonfly’s nervous system, a leaf’s interior, the human brain, winding DNA chains, ocean ecosystems and city cellular networks.

“Humans are not central to the story of evolution and biodiversity,” said Vivian Trakinski, the museum’s director of science visualization. But, she added, “we are active participants.” In the installation, which was designed by a team led by Marc Tamschick of Tamschick Media + Space in Berlin, “that idea is expressed bodily, by people moving,” Trakinski said.

By taking steps on the interactive floor, visitors can appear to send electrical signals across nerve synapses. They can also make plankton scatter, push water into tree roots or disrupt migrating birds’ flight patterns. My carbon footprint suddenly took on new meaning.

The museum has had a library since its founding in 1869, but never one so beautifully designed, with comfortable sofas and chairs beside sweeping views of Theodore Roosevelt Park. Or one in “as high-profile a position,” said Tom Baione, the museum’s director of library services. Open on weekdays only, this serene new space on the fourth floor includes a sunny public Reading Room, an appointment-only Scholars’ Room and a Group Study Room.

In addition to more than half a million volumes, at least one dating to the 15th century, the collection has photographs, archival materials and memorabilia. Anyone can ask to read one of the noncirculating books, and some duplicate copies are left out on tables.

The library’s gallery for temporary exhibitions, tucked into an alcove, shows work by early taxonomists like Carl Linnaeus and Maria Sibylla Merian, prints from Andy Warhol’s “Endangered Species” series and one mystery piece: Playfully titled “Withus Oragainstus,” it consists of parts from a toy fighter jet attached to the body of a longhorn beetle. Left at the museum in 2005, Baione said, it is believed to be Banksy’s work.

The title of this exhibit makes it sound like a mountain trail and, in a sense, it is. Set within a corridor that connects the Gilder Center atrium to the museum’s Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals, this display recreates an astonishing vein of rock crystal quartz that was unearthed in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas.

“Finding these things, these exposures like this, truly is jaw-dropping,” George Harlow, a geologist and curator at the museum, said of the discovery. The challenge, he added, was to communicate “that this is what Mother Nature produces.”

The 19-foot-long pass (the original vein is 70 feet) has text explaining how dissolved silica transforms into crystalline quartz, a mineral used in technology as well as in jewelry. A dazzling signpost, the exhibit reflects the Gilder Center’s philosophy: to lead visitors along paths to further discovery.

Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation

415 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan; 212-769-5606; amnh.org.

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