On Thursday, children and adults alike will step into a room that resembles a canyon—in the middle of New York City. With textured, gently curving walls that extend several stories above the ground, the new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation is crafted to inspire awe.
This dream-like room is the centerpiece of a new extension to the American Museum of Natural History, located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The Gilder Center features new displays, innovative architecture and even live insects. Its galleries branch off from the canyon-like atrium, accessible by bridges and visible through gaping holes that evoke the mouths of caves.
Announced in 2014, the Gilder Center project took nine years and approximately $465 million to complete. The 230,000-square-foot addition was designed by Studio Gang, a Chicago-headquartered architecture firm, to resemble rocks carved out by wind and water over time.
“The Gilder Center is designed to invite exploration and discovery that is not only emblematic of science, but also such a big part of being human,” says Jeanne Gang, founding principal and partner of Studio Gang, in a press release. “It aims to draw everyone in—all ages, backgrounds, and abilities—to share the excitement of learning about the natural world.”
The unique design of the museum is a nod to the wonder of the Earth. Architects used shotcrete, a method of applying concrete through a hose at high velocity, to mimic the walls of a canyon in its atrium. As a result, the Gilder Center is a one-of-a-kind project, meant to spark curiosity for all its visitors.
“Gilder is spectacular: a poetic, joyful, theatrical work of public architecture and a highly sophisticated flight of sculptural fantasy,” writes architecture critic Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times.
From the central, cavern-like atrium, visitors can access galleries spanning four floors above ground. In one, patrons walk through a butterfly vivarium, a sanctuary housing up to 80 species of the fluttering insects that eat, mate and reproduce in the exhibit. In another gallery, live insects of other species—from cave cockroaches to spiny flower mantises—are on display in an insectarium, according to the New York Post’s Matthew Sedacca. Visitors can look up into a transparent skybridge filled with leafcutter ants transporting food and marvel at an 8,000-pound resin model of a beehive.
“The new insectarium addresses a lack in the museum’s exhibitions for the last 50 years: nothing devoted to insects, the most diverse life forms on Earth, absolutely critical to so many ecosystems,” James Carpenter, curator of invertebrate zoology at the museum, tells the New York Post.
Beyond the butterflies and bugs, Gilder also features a library and 18 classrooms to teach visitors of various ages. In a 360-degree immersive theater, a twelve-minute show projects video of natural phenomena onto the curved walls and floor, displaying DNA and natural ecosystems.
This new haven for learning “comes at a time when we need modern, technologically current science education spaces and opportunities more than ever,” says Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, to Edwin Heathcote of the Art Newspaper.
Since it first opened in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has served as a center for scientific knowledge. Now featuring approximately 34 million different artifacts and specimens, the collections give ample opportunity for research. More than 170 scientists work at the museum and study the contents of its archive.
Over the years, more buildings were erected in the museum complex and linked together. But with that design came navigation problems for visitors—constant dead ends and challenges moving between the different sections. Now, the Gilder Center is acting as a hub to connect some of the museum’s galleries in a more seamless manner.
For some time, though, it wasn’t quite clear that the Gilder Center project would get off the ground. The museum has been the center of controversy in the past few years, in part due to a long-standing statue of Theodore Roosevelt, whose father was a founder of the museum. In 2022, the museum removed the statue, which depicted the former president on a horse with two shirtless men, one Native American and the other African, standing on either side.
The Gilder center project also sparked contention among city residents, as its cost ultimately ran more than $100 million over budget. Additionally, residents grew concerned that the Gilder Center would expand too far onto the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Park and brought a lawsuit against the museum to halt construction. Coupled with the pandemic, this pushed back the planned 2020 opening date.
Despite these concerns, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Gilder Center in 2018, and construction was resumed. When the venue opens its doors this week, it will represent a step forward in STEM studies in New York. Museum officials say they hope the Gilder Center will inspire future generations and prompt visitors to ask questions about the natural world.
“This opening represents a milestone moment for the museum in its ongoing efforts to improve science literacy,” says Futter in the press release. The Gilder Center “fulfills a critical need at a critical time: to help visitors to understand the natural world more deeply, to appreciate that all life is interdependent, to trust science and to be inspired to protect our precious planet and its myriad life forms.”