Look down West 79th Street, as if searching for the sun during Manhattanhenge, and you’ll notice a giant, amoeba-like structure undulating from the side of the nearly 150-year-old original Victorian Gothic building of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).
With nearly another year of construction before its opening, AMNH President Ellen Futter and design architect Jean Gang gave an advance tour on Monday of the museum’s newest expansion, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.
It’s a 230,000-square-foot scientific temple dedicated to research, education and deepening the public’s connection to science, an urgent need according to museum officials.
The center’s current shell will be covered with Milford pink granite to match the building’s facade on Central Park West. Instead of using the traditional pourable concrete, construction crews are using a sprayable version called shotcrete. Using this method eliminated the large quantities of wood wasted to create the formwork for concrete elements. Taxidermists use shotcrete to create scenes in the museum's dioramas.
The $431-million-project also boasts a year-round 3,000-square-foot butterfly vivarium, more than double the size of the old temporary tent exhibit that opened every year. The study of live butterflies and insects is important to the museum, according to Futter, because these bugs are bellwethers for the planet’s health.
“You get a sense of why it's holistic, and how it will share all of the work of the museum,” Futter said. “But [also] the museum's role in presenting science in society and showing the interconnectedness of life.”
The center is named after philanthropist Richard Gilder, a fifth-generation New Yorker who co-founded the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and ran a brokerage firm. He was also the co-founder of the Central Park Community Fund, which eventually became the Central Park Conservancy. He gave the museum $140 million over his lifetime including the initial donation for the new building.
Currently, the City of New York has allocated funding of over $90 million to the AMNH, and another $17 million came from the state, specifically for the new center. This project also came at the cost of seven large, old trees and a quarter-acre New York City park land, formerly part of Teddy Roosevelt Park.
The Gilder Center is the 23rd building in the museum complex which occupies four city blocks. It is located on Columbus Avenue between 78th and 80th streets. Builders say the design allows for circular movement around the entire complex, preventing the long hallways and dead ends found at the older sections of the museum.
Still obscured at street level by a high wooden construction wall, the four-story atrium sits at the center of the facade. According to renderings, many of the new galleries can be seen as you walk through this giant open space. Currently, it’s filled with scaffolding, but when that’s removed, undulating walls will greet visitors upon entering.
“So eventually all of that will come out and that will be a very sculptural space of discovery,” Futter said.
Nearly 30 orders of live insects will be housed in a new 5,000-square-foot insectarium. It will include a beehive with a camera that will allow visitors a view inside. Overhead, leafcutter ants will walk through clear skybridges to reach a fungal garden embedded into one of the walls. When complete, it will be the largest display of this species in the world, the museum said. The sounds of Central Park insects and animals will fill the room along with touch screens on the information and sounds of New York City bugs.
To make the museum experience more interactive, an immersive theater with 23-foot-high walls will give guests the opportunity to connect with the natural world. As large as a hockey rink, the circular area will be filled with 12-minute-loop projections of nature on the ceilings, walls and floor — from DNA to ocean floor life. Depending on where a person steps, a flock of birds may flee and take off or virtual water may be released and directed in plant roots. It’s akin to a simplified version of the holodeck in Star Trek.
“There’s no seats,” Futter said. “The purpose of this is to take the visitor inside nature, and you'll go deeper and deeper and deeper into where the human eye normally can't go.”
Gallery space will occupy three stories and will consist of the museum’s research and corresponding collections that illustrate the process of scientific discovery. Only 12% of the institution’s collection will be stored or on display in the new building. Behind the artifacts housed in glass cases, visitors will see the pieces in storage and glimpses of the scientists at work.
Education is one of the key tenets of the new expansion. The library and the classroom hold key positions at the front of the Gilder Center, making them some of the most visible activities from the street view. These learning spaces will further the mission to expand STEM to students and train teachers. According to Futter, the museum trains about 5,000 science teachers remotely and in-person every year.
From its fourth floor, the library will have a view of the Hudson River. The space will showcase the museum’s rare book collection and offer reading spaces to visitors.
The building’s high performance envelope with its stone-cladding will help keep it naturally cool in the summer. And the structure is also steam and electric-powered.
“This space is really about making the whole knowledge library accessible,” Gang said, “ not tucked away in the back in the bowels of the building, but really upfront and showing it's important for education.”
The Gilder Center opens next winter.