Like any four-year-old with an interest in building Lego cities and digging in dirt, my son Douglas has been begging to visit the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) since the last time he visited. Though he’s been many times before, he always finds something different to obsess over, like taxidermied Komodo dragons in the Hall of Reptiles or the Willamette Meteorite in the Hall of the Universe. When I told him last Sunday that we were going to check out the museum’s newly opened Gilder Center, he was thrilled. For a preschooler who’s never heard of “architecture” and can barely fathom that some of the fossils stored within the museum’s historically significant walls are hundreds of millions of years old—let alone how much a million years is—all that matters is that the building is new. He also really wanted to see some dinosaurs.
The much buzzed-about new wing is a cavernous 84-foot atrium that feels like a canyon begging to be explored; its interior walls are made of shotcrete, a technique where concrete is sprayed onto rebar, the results of which evoke the natural landscapes of the American Southwest or the man-made netherworld of the New York City subway system. (The exterior is clad in Milford pink granite.) Designed by Chicago-based architecture practice Studio Gang, the 230,000-square-foot addition to the AMNH’s existing 26 buildings is an instant landmark for the city. It represents a lot of lofty ideas about design, conservation, and the importance of science education at times like these. “The architecture taps into the desire for exploration and discovery that is so emblematic of science and also such a big part of being human,” Studio Gang founding principal Jeanne Gang says on the firm’s website. “When you step into the Gilder Center, you immediately feel a sense of wonder.”
After seeing the undulating edifice through the eyes of my precocious, preternaturally enthusiastic four year old, I can tell you that’s certainly true. We visited just three days after the building, originally slated for a 2019 ribbon cutting to coincide with the museum’s 150th anniversary, opened to the public after a slew of delays. Even at 10 a.m. sharp, we had to wait in line. The excitement over the $465 million addition, first announced in 2014, was palpable, and tickets to one of the new, permanent exhibits, Invisible Worlds, were sold out. Even so, there was plenty of ground for us to cover in the five-story structure, including the butterfly vivarium, a tropical rainforest–like butterfly habitat that overlooks 79th Street; the collections core, a selection of around 3,000 specimens usually stored behind the scenes including various bats, turtle shells, and lantern slides, which I described to Douglas as “instant pictures from before people had cameras or phones”; and the insectarium, the first stop on our visit, its name alone music to the ears of a little boy whose pre-K class recently completed a unit on bugs.
Besides the vast urban cave itself, bugs are one of the big draws at the Gilder Center, which doesn’t only feature ancient dead things on display as much of the museum does. Both the insectarium and the butterfly vivarium have hundreds of thousands of living creatures to behold. At least a half a million of those are the leaf-cutter ants inhabiting the largest ant farm I’ve ever seen. Illuminated enclosures situated right at Douglas’s eye level (he’s all of three feet, seven inches tall) containing live taxicab beetles, goldeneye stick bugs, golden cave cockroaches, and other creatures made him whisper, “Cool!” to himself no less than 500 times.
The AMNH must have had the Douglases of the world in mind when they planned the new wing’s playful and interactive exhibits. They’re tactile, engaging, and fun, even for kids who can’t read yet. It’s not a ‘look with your eyes, not your hands,’ type of place. You’re invited to touch things. Douglas pressed a button to light up a display and see how insects mimic patterns seen in nature. He listened to the sounds of bugs native to New York City and slid little magnifying glasses over praying mantises pinned in cases. He manipulated a microscope in order to see a sand roach more clearly. He checked out most of the displays without being hoisted by his mother, and he got up close and personal with an 8,000-pound model of a beehive at the front of the insectarium to learn about the path of European honey bees.
Up in the second-floor butterfly vivarium—a permanent exhibit with up to 80 species, as well as a pupae incubator which shows off the life cycle of a butterfly—he stuck out his arm in hopes that one of its 1,000-plus butterflies would land on him. None did, and judging by the way he flinched when one flapped a little too close to him, he was relieved, something he admitted when I picked him up from school a few days later.
Although the newness of the Gilder Center was exciting, Douglas’s original demand remained: we had to visit the dinosaurs he’d been carrying on about, too. We also had to leave a few things off for the next visit, like The Restaurant at Gilder, the AMNH’s only table service establishment, with a hive-inspired, honeycomb ceiling, no less, and the Gottesman Research Library, open to the public on weekdays, its entry room with amorphous windows, full-height bookshelves, and a splayed out central concrete column. The building also contains several classrooms, educational centers, and learning labs. It’s easy to imagine elementary school field trip groups and PhD candidates coexisting in such a space, lounging in the atrium’s plentiful amphitheater-like seating under the circular skylights.
Admittedly, I’d never visited the existing museum without getting lost, but the addition of the Gilder Center makes it possible to loop around the whole place without hitting any dead ends. We jaunted through the Hall of South American Peoples and headed up to the fourth floor’s Hall of Dinosaurs to pay our respects to the titanosaur, T.rex, and apatosaurus, then easily navigated downstairs and past the mounts of chimpanzees in the Hall of Primates to the floor-to-ceiling cases of astronomical instruments in the third floor’s collections core. Of course, when we arrived back inside of the giant rock-like formation where we started, he requested to “go to space,” or the Hayden Planetarium, which connects to the Gilder Center through a long, bright hallway.
At home, I asked Douglas what he’d liked about the museum’s new wing. “Everything was the best part,” he said. He’s been talking about bugs nonstop for days and is already plotting our return. If the Gilder Center is intended to be a place that sparks curiosity, the AMNH has done its job.