Arts and Entertainment

A Journey to the Insect Kingdom: The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation

From its architecture to its exhibits, immersion is the goal at the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.

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By Iris Lin

Since it first opened its gates almost 150 years ago, the American Museum of Natural History has become an essential part of New York City’s cultural landscape, inviting millions of tourists and New Yorkers alike behind its vast, Gothic Victorian walls to learn about the natural world, which can often feel far away from the bustling cityscape. While this mission has remained constant, the methods the museum uses to display its collection have changed as technology has progressed. Today, exhibits with digital components, such as the Hayden Planetarium and various movie theaters, allow the museum to educate visitors about the sciences by presenting them with artifacts and specimens and immersing them in the intricate processes of nature.

This approach is exemplified by the museum’s latest addition, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, which opened on May 4. Every aspect of this new wing immerses visitors, from the decor to the exhibits to the building’s architecture. The façade resembles an ancient rock face that has slowly weathered into a cave system, with deeply recessed windows framed by wavy granite curves. At the center of the exterior, there is an enormous glass panel with a line of doors at its base that act as the wing’s primary entrance. This cave-like structure beckons visitors to explore the museum and its hidden mysteries. 

Like its exterior, the interior of the Richard Gilder Center is stylistically organic, but instead of drawing inspiration from cave systems, it resembles the structures produced by living things. The space, which consists of a cavernous central hall flanked by three levels of terraces and criss-crossing walkways, replicates the winding passages of an anthill. The third floor continues this theme with a vast library supported by columns resembling enormous gilled mushrooms and contains thousands of scientific volumes that allow visitors to further explore the curiosity that the new wing inspires. 

Similarly, the exhibits that line the bottom floor of the Richard Gilder Center explore the natural phenomena the building’s architecture draws inspiration from. The first of these exhibits is the insectarium, featuring hundreds of live species and pinned specimens. The exhibit is enhanced by educational videos describing the role of insects in their ecosystems and the steps we can take to protect them. Despite the flashing screens and breathtaking specimens, the exhibit’s showstopper is its leafcutter ant colony installation. One side of the installation is a feeding area full of plants being slowly eaten by the tiny insects. After gathering their food, the ants carry it on their backs, scaling a ladder and crossing a rope bridge along the ceiling of the insectarium to bring their food to the underground nesting area, on full display behind a sheet of glass. This immersive design brings visitors into the colony, portraying ants as highly intelligent and social creatures that are vital to the environment.

Upstairs, the butterfly vivarium allows visitors to mingle with thousands of live butterflies as they learn about their life cycles and the importance of insect conservation. The multicolored butterflies that flutter around as museum employees teach add poignancy to the exhibit’s educational aspect that dead insects behind glass can rarely evoke. The Invisible Worlds Immersive Experience achieves similar results but through a completely different approach: transporting visitors into a room entirely composed of screens—including an interactive screen on the floor—that simulate a variety of different ecosystems, ranging from the ocean to the tropical rainforest. This immerses visitors in diverse natural processes, such as photosynthesis and the water cycle, allowing them to participate in these phenomena by directing water flow through plant roots or transporting the chemicals in a leaf with their feet. This addition to the museum complements its vast dioramas and thousands of specimens; instead of staring at a diagram of an ecosystem, wondering how all of the species fit together, visitors can now interact with the plants and animals, deepening their understanding through hands-on learning. 

The Richard Gilder Center allows its visitors to see the world as insects and inspires them with what these insects are capable of. From ants that carry leaves 20 times their body weight to bees that are essential to our agricultural industry, the immersive power of this new wing transforms insects from pests to biological marvels and emphasizes our responsibility as humans to protect them.