|Should you go?||N/A|
|Time spent||51 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||In the display of the museum’s collections, I characteristically especially liked the plethora of bats.|
Much has changed among New York museums since I started systematically visiting them. I’ve revised the list multiple times, and I have visited several that were not part of my initial plan. I’ve also revisited ones that have expanded or changed. The American Museum of Natural History recently opened the Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a vast new wing of the venerable institution, and its biggest change since it replaced the old planetarium with the spiffy sphere-in-a-clear-glass-box of the Rose Center over twenty years ago.
I visited the Gilder Center during its member-only opening weekend. Rather than re-review the whole museum, I have some impressions of the new space, and its likely impact on the rest of the institution.
Sexy, Sexy Curves
The Gilder Center is a very, very, very sexy building. It’d be easy to dismiss its biomorphic, asymmetrical forms as Flintstones architecture, or aping termites or some other social insect. And those are valid brickbats. But, seriously, look at these curves. This is the most Instagrammable new museum space New York has seen since someone last showed off a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room.
(Perhaps times have changed enough that I should revert to “photogenic” rather than Instagrammable — but I stand by that statement either way…)
And these snapshots are me only half trying – imagine the photos someone with a good camera who really studies the light and angles will be able to take. The building’s forms come from deliberately rough concrete, sprayed layer by layer following what must’ve been insanely complex plans to look like it just sort of accidentally formed the way it did.
There’s an argument to be made that museums aren’t supposed to be sexy. Except for the Museum of Sex, of course. Certainly if this were an art museum there’d be a valid gripe of the building upstaging the art (I’m looking at you, Frank Gehry). But that doesn’t apply to science museums. Moreover, unlike many other flamboyant recent museum buildings, Gilder keeps its sexiness largely under wraps. The calm façade resembles cut stone — like upthrust sedimentary rock layers — fitting with the scale and massing of the rest of the Columbus Avenue side of the building. Indeed, it may be too calm, like a tech startup corporate headquarters. At least it runs no risk of upstaging the Neoclassical if recently de-Roosevelt-ed Central Park West entrance.
The two things that the Natural History Museum most desperately needed were more space and more connections between far-flung parts of the place. Important halls like Gems and Minerals have long been culs-de-sac, fun to discover but hard to get back out of. The Gilder Center was precision crafted to address both of those issues, as well as creating new exhibit spaces.
Gilder’s wayfinding and signage are great, although they doesn’t follow the pattern of the rest of the museum. Then again, I love AMNH for its glorious inconsistencies. Stairways are easy to find and, like the Rose Center, the windows in this wing will also help visitors orient themselves.
AMNH also needed more research space, and, apparently, a library, which is by far my favorite space in the new building. On the top floor, it appears to have a concrete tree in the middle. Tree of Knowledge? Tree of Life? Anyway, it evokes Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK, with sleek midcentury-esque furniture to match. Like most visitors I probably won’t use it, and only glimpsed it through the glass door. But, wow, I’d like to research some science in there.
Bugs, Mycelia, Whales and More
The Gilder Center also houses several new exhibits. Most notably, the Museum now has a permanent insect exhibit, praising the myriad of ecosystem services provided by our arthropod friends. Displays feature the Insects of New York and a living colony of leafcutter ants. I fear them getting out and eating Central Park or something and I hope AMNH’s entomologists thought that through. The museum now also has a permanent space for frolicking with live butterflies, though even on the member preview day the line for that was long enough that I skipped it.
There’s also a series of displays about AMNH’s unparalleled collection of objects catalogued and tagged and stored (often after being killed and stuffed or formaldehyded) for future researchers. This takes up one wall across multiple floors and is really fun. It offers a sort of Cliffs Notes version of the museum itself. Reinforcing that this place drives ongoing important research are a couple of spaces where visitors can peek in on scientists at work. I would not want to put up with that were I on the staff, but hopefully exhibitionist researchers will enjoy it.
And finally, there’s an interactive, immersive space called Invisible Worlds. This is, essentially, an excuse for kids to run around and burn off energy. It tells several stories: about the mycelial networks that underpin forests, the neurons that make our brains run, and the web of life that comprises plankton. Each of these includes moments that invite visitors to stomp on lights on the floor, or create patterns as lights follow their movements. Lacking a conventional playground, this is a clever way to bleed off some hyperactivity and perhaps make other parts of AMNH calmer as a result. You could also hold a pretty awesome rave in there, assuming raves are still a thing.
Final thoughts on the Gilder Center
I went to the Gilder Center a skeptic. It’s such showy architecture. Biomorphic curves look good (sometimes) but do they do anything to help people get from Point A to Point B? And yet, it won me over.
Gilder’s thoughtful connections make the rest of AMNH far easier to navigate. As with the Rose Center, when you’re in the space you always know where you are. Hopefully traffic patterns in the rest of the museum will improve in the coming weeks. That said, who knows whether the Gilder Center’s 230,000 new square feet will mitigate the crowds or end up just as overcrowded as the rest of the museum. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic.
The Gilder Center also represents AMNH looking at itself via the view of the collections, and also literally, as new windows peer out at the red brick facade of the older building.
On the downside, the Gilder adds some things I’m not sure the museum needed. For example, there’s a show-off grand staircase/ bleacher affair in the lobby that was cool the first time I saw one but now seems an overused architectural trick. Also a fancy new restaurant. And I’m unconvinced about the whole “live scientists on display” element.
While I’m being critical, I’m also not sure how this architecture is going to age. I have a feeling that in twenty years Gilder will look “so 2020s” to people. And who knows how easy or hard it’s going to be to maintain the rough concrete – I expect those beautiful biomorphic surfaces are going to collect dust like nobody’s business.
However, frivolous features and maintenance challenges feel like small quibbles. For the moment, I love what they’ve done with the place.
|Address||415 Columbus Avenue, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $28 for adults (pay what you will for residents of NY, NJ, and CT)|
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