The new science center of the Natural History Museum is taking shape

In 2014, when the American Museum of Natural History announcement plans for a major expansion devoted to science, museum president Elle...


In 2014, when the American Museum of Natural History announcement plans for a major expansion devoted to science, museum president Ellen V. Futter spoke of the “gap in public understanding of science at the same time that many of the most important issues have science as their foundation.”

Today, in a world that has been transformed by the growing dangers of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, that concern has become increasingly pressing, Futter said, and it informed the construction of the museum’s $431 million Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, the finer details of which have were unveiled on Monday, along with a new opening date for next winter.

“This is only intensifying and becoming urgent in a post-truth world where we also have acute threats to human health in the form of the pandemic and to the environment,” Futter said in an interview. “At the same time, we have a crisis of science culture and education in this country and we have science denial.

“It’s a building for our time,” Futter said of the 230,000-square-foot structure visibly taking shape along Columbus Avenue near West 79th Street. She added that it “speaks to some of the biggest issues that we face as a society, as a natural world.”

On a recent hardhat tour of the six-story structure with an undulating stone and glass exterior, the architect Jeanne Gang said the building is “on the hookups.” Architecturally, for example, pink Milford granite was used for the entrance to Central Park West, designed by John Russell Pope, in the 1930s. The same stone, sourced from a nearby quarry, is used for the west facade of the new project.

The project also emphasizes the links between the different themes and activities of the museum — from exhibition to education; from children to academics; from dinosaurs and whales to insects and butterflies.

The building also aims to improve the physical circulation of the museum, creating around 30 new connections within 10 existing buildings so that visitors can move more easily from one area to another. “We’ve been stuck in stalemates for years,” Futter said. “They left.”

While the museum has always projected a kind of towering, impenetrable majesty, its new building is consciously more porous, with welcoming floor-to-ceiling windows that allow people to “look in and out,” Futter said, adding: “It’s an invitation.

The center’s transparency is also reaching out to the museum’s neighbors, some of whom were unhappy with the project’s initial foray into adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Park (the footprint was reduced in response). A legal challenge brought by a community group against the Gilder Center was fired by the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division in 2019. A new landscape design of the park by Reed Hilderbrand adds seating and new planting.

An expanded library also aims to engage the public more with a new reading room for scholars, an exhibition alcove and learning ‘zones’ – as well as panoramic views to the west. This centering of the library puts “the scholarly side of the institution right at the forefront,” Futter said.

About $340 million has been raised so far, Futter said, including about $78 million from the city, which owns the building, and $17 million from the state. The project is receiving additional funding of $90 million. Richard Gilder, a stockbroker and longtime donor to the museum, who died in 2020, contributed $50 million to the project. The center’s four-story atrium will be named after financier and philanthropist Kenneth C. Griffin, in honor of his $40 million gift to the project.

The new center will house approximately 12% of the museum’s collection, displaying objects on three floors and offering views of storage areas where scientists and collections staff can retrieve, examine and study specimens.

“Collections are alive,” Gang said. “They are still used all the time.”

Demonstrating that the natural history museum goes far beyond dioramas, Futter added, the new building shows that scholarly study can lead to real-world solutions.

“Science is based on observation, testing, proof – scientists don’t make things up – and it should be trusted,” she said. “Look at what has just happened in this pandemic: scientific research has developed the tools for vaccinations.”

“The collections are the proof,” Futter added. “The evidence is going to be in front of you all over this building.”

With exhibit design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates – in conjunction with the museum’s exhibits department – ​​the addition to the building includes a 5,000 square foot Insectarium that will feature live and digital displays; a monumental hive; and a gallery surrounding visitors with the sounds of Central Park insects.

There is also a year-round 3,000 square foot vivarium that will have free-flying butterflies and pictorial maps identifying each species in flight that are updated daily.

A 360 degree theater of invisible worlds as big as a hockey rink – designed by Tamschick Media+Space and Boris Micka Associates — will offer immersive images that will widen the lens or zoom in on nature: a rainforest, the ocean, the brain. The movements of the visitors will modify the projections of the screen.

“As a species, we are not apart of the environment – we affect it and it affects us,” Futter said. “It changes your understanding of where we belong and that we have responsibilities.”

Through the architecture, Gang said, she wanted to give visitors a sense of agency and serendipity as they followed their own sights – the ability to wander, wander and explore on their own.

“It’s about showing people where they can go and making it appealing,” Gang said, “creating landscapes of discovery.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: The new science center of the Natural History Museum is taking shape
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