One of the largest museums in the world is about to get larger and a lot more surreal. The American Museum of Natural History, situated across the street from Central Park in New York City’s Upper East Side, has plans to add a new wing to its already impressive 27-building facility.
The design, described as “part Dr. Seuss, part Jurassic Park” by the New York Times, comes from the imagination of architect Jeanne Gang, who won a competition for the honor. Gang, founder of the Chicago firm Studio Gang Architects, offers a unique vision for the building, expected to open in 2019 in celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary.
At once futuristic and historic, the design concept mimics the structure of natural caves and glacial formations to create towering halls and circulatory pathways within a wondrous, abstract building. The design is at home with the museum in subject matter of magnificent creatures, science, and peoples of the past, but diverges in regards to structure, which is more reminiscent of a theme park than a traditional museum.
The theatrical quality of the design may be the perfect direction for the famed museum. With half a million school-children visited yearly and thousands of teachers trained, the fantastical form reinforces the museum’s its reputation as a fun and educational destination for people of all ages. The imagination it encompasses could spur in today’s youth scientific interest and curiosities to last a lifetime, ultimately shaping the future of the sciences.
150 years in the making
It has taken nearly a century and a half of growth and development for the American Museum of Natural History to reach this point. Established in 1869, the museum was first housed in Central Park’s Arsenal Building before today’s facility began construction. The museum’s founding realized the dreams of naturalist and student of zoology Dr. Albert S. Bickmore, who lobbied tirelessly for a natural history museum.
The first building was constructed in 1874 and opened in 1877, after which more were added over the course of many decades. With architecture ranging from Victorian Gothic to neo-Romanesque and Beaux-arts, the museum is a magnificent hodgepodge of science and history outside-in.
The museum’s many buildings were built and connected over time, and not always with rhyme or reason. One of the purposes of the new expansion will be to add additional connections between levels across buildings to alleviate confusion and congestion.
Little has been added to the museum’s exterior since the 1930s, though in 2009 its south front was cleaned, repaired, and renovated, and in 2012 the North Hall of Mammals was refurbished.
The upcoming addition will add to the museum’s facade a contemporary, silvery exterior made of stone and glass, in stark contrast to the red brick of its neighbors.
Dissent and cooperation
Not everyone was initially keen on the expansion, as it will encroach (however slightly) upon the beloved and historic Teddy Roosevelt Park. After its announcement in Fall of 2015, over 200 locals gathered at a town hall meeting for an organization called “Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park.”
The $325 million project will take up 218,000 square feet or new space, 116,000 of which will be parkland: about a quarter of an acre. But planners are eager to please locals, especially in the wake of their protests. To limit obstruction, three buildings are being taken down to make room for the new one so it does not protrude much onto treasured park space. Neither will it protrude vertically: the six-story building was designed carefully not to extend higher than existing buildings.
The “Defenders,” as they call themselves, successfully secured a 50 percent reduction in parkland lost to the expansion as of March 10. They were even invited to help redesign the park to ensure it matches or surpasses the space lost to the expansion.
All in all, it seems that the expansion plans will be considerate of community needs, museum goals, and the future of natural history education. After 150 years, the new building should offer an apt 21st-century update that is respectful to the past, hopeful for the future, and earnest to keep the sciences fascinating and awesome.