First Look: Panama's Frank Gehry-Designed Biomuseo

Inside an architectural wonder, the newly opened Museum of Biodiversity tells the story of how Central America divided the oceans and connected continents.

On a peninsula of land that juts out from mainland Central America into the Pacific Ocean sits a building with a bright, multi-colored patchwork roof. The building is that of the newly opened Biomuseo (Museum of Biodiversity) in Panama City, Panama, and the roof's colorful, angular surprises seem to echo the creative adaption that comes with evolution.

The angular building dispenses with traditional architectural lines; as a product of renowned architect Frank Gehry (who also designed Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum), it's either exceptionally fun or rather off-putting, depending on aesthetic preferences.

And while Gehry's architecture might be what catches visitors first, the museum is not just a novelty of architecture, but was built to tell the story of how the Isthmus of Panama rose from the sea to separate the early ocean in two, forever changing the diversity of the planet.

Cargo ship passing the Biomuseo

Today, of course, it's impossible to not be aware that the museum also marks the western entrance of the Panama Canal, which effectively rejoins those oceans (and which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2014). In the waters near Biomuseo, massive cargo ships and tankers queue up for a ride through the canal, as they make their way from the Pacific Ocean through to the Caribbean Sea and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean. The adjacent Amador Causeway which extends past the museum is manmade, connecting what once were three separate islands with the mainland, and built with rock and soil excavated during the canal-building process.

The museum contains eight permanent exhibition galleries that blend art and science—appropriately titled "Panama: Bridge of Life"—plus a public atrium and a botanical park with multiple outdoor exhibits. Bruce Mau, Canadian designer and founder of the Institute Without Boundaries, is the mastermind behind these exhibits these exhibits, including a gallery of biodiversity, cylindrical aquariums representing the separated oceans, a permanent display about the tectonics at work and the story of humanity's relationship with the nature of Panama.

Worlds Collide Exhibit

Outside the Biomuseo is the BioPark, an extension of the museum that brings the archived biodiversity inside the museum to life with plants that tell living stories about the area's diversity. The museum makes for a wonderful family excursion from the urban core of Panama City and pairs well with dining on the nearby islands, just across the causeway (dining on fresh seafood under the thatched roofs of Mi Ranchito is a treat). A taxi ride from the central city to the museum should be well less than $10, sometimes just $5 with tip, but local cabs seem to vary their rates quite extensively and sometimes double or triple their prices when serving tourists.

BioMuseo: The Quick Facts

Opened: Oct. 2, 2014

Designed by: Frank Gehry

Concept: Biodiversity museum focused on wildlife and flora of Central America

Location: Amador Causeway, beside the Plaza de las Banderas, Panama City, Panama

Geoff Kohl
About the author

Geoff Kohl previously served as the chief travel editor for Where and Read Geoff's full bio