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American Museum of Natural History opens stunning new expansion


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: How to capture and convey the wonder of science and the natural world, especially at a time when the public teaching of science is again being fought over?

The largest Museum of Natural History in America just expanded its reach, and Jeffrey Brown got an advanced tour. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeanne Gang, Architect, Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, American Museum of Natural History: We are looking for places for views, to make connections to people, to things, to collections.

Jeffrey Brown: This is a pretty good one.

Jeanne Gang: Yes, and that one to the park.

Jeffrey Brown: A pre-opening walk with architect Jeanne Gang to see the new building she designed as an expansion of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Jeanne Gang: It feels like an organic space. People have felt different things about it, like a canyon, a cave, a grotto, bones. People have told me all kinds of different natural things.

Jeffrey Brown: You're OK with all those?

Jeanne Gang: Oh, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Everywhere you look, especially in the five-story atrium, soft curves and shapes, with outside light pouring in. Gang and the team at her Chicago-based architectural firm Studio Gang were inspired by natural landscapes, but tied to a specific urban setting.

Jeanne Gang: The leap was really, we need to do something that is about connections, flow, curiosity, discovery.

And so those were things that led us to creating this porous structure with lots of openings, lots of connections, almost like in a landscape where you would be curious to go explore little crevices and niches and go through openings.

Jeffrey Brown: The museum, one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with some five million visitors a year, has been a place of discovery for a long time now, known for its lifelike dioramas still fascinating young children, its enormous dinosaurs and blue whale, the Halls of Gems, planetarium and much, much, much more.

And, yes, this is where Ben Stiller spent a memorable night at the museum in the 2006 film.

Actor: This thing doesn't even look real.

Jeffrey Brown: But it's also a major research and education institute.

And the new Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, a $431 million expansion, offers more space for that as well, a chance for visitors to see more of the vast collection, and the curators and researchers working within it, as here among jars of different fish species.

It is the kind of experience Sean Decatur, a biochemist, former head of Kenyon College, and now president of this historic museum, knows firsthand.

Sean Decatur, President, American Museum of Natural History: I participated in after-school and summer camp programs at the Natural History Museum in Cleveland, where I grew up.

My mother signed me up to every possible program. That's a place where I not only had my curiosity piqued, but I also began to meet scientists, to learn what the scientific process is like. I think that's something that this museum does very well on many levels.

Jeffrey Brown: Now a museum known for going big highlights the small, with a live insectarium for encounters with the planets most diverse group of animals, and a butterfly the vivarium to learn about life cycles, short, and different species or to simply flutter about and enjoy.

Vivian Trakinski, Director of Science Visualization, American Museum of Natural History: Where we are right now, we're actually inside a human brain. This is a digitized human brain.

Jeffrey Brown: The connectedness of all life is the theme of the immersive Invisible Worlds Experience.

And the critical task for a museum like this, says Vivian Trakinski, is how to make life come alive. Trakinski's title, director of science visualization.

Vivian Trakinski: The key is, what do we know?

Jeffrey Brown: Starts with that.

Vivian Trakinski: Starts with the science. And then I think you have to think about the public. What do they know? What are pathways to engage them in the different topics that you're trying to communicate?

And so, between the science and public interest, you find an area that is so ripe for creativity and different ways to communicate, different topics to different audiences.

Jeffrey Brown: That makes this a prime place to see an evolution in how we visualize natural history and science, with dioramas and digitization both transporting people to largely inaccessible places in different ways.

Vivian Trakinski: And it doesn't make the dioramas any less beautiful or any less relevant. If anything, I feel like it gives them a fresh feeling, an update, because, when you walk into that digital theater and you see those curved walls with the landscapes projected on them, you're reminded of the dioramas.

It's a digital diorama. It is an echo of what the museum has been creating for more than 100 and — 100, 150 years.

Jeffrey Brown: Cool stuff, for sure. But science today is a hot-button cultural and political arena. Think of battles over vaccine mandates and climate change policy.

Incoming museum president Sean Decatur approaches this as the educator he's been his entire professional life.

Sean Decatur: When we see reports out there of mistrust and lack of confidence in science, I believe the root cause of that is a lack of understanding of the scientific process itself.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean how science works, how scientists do?


Sean Decatur: Exactly.

Science needs to be accessible to everyone. Everyone should be able to have the opportunity to develop literacy and fluency in scientific thinking and scientific ideas. If we don't do that, we risk losing a lot of talent who will hopefully help us to solve many of the problems that we're facing down the road, but we will also have real challenges in terms of policymaking and decision-making broadly.

Jeffrey Brown: The larger disputes over science and the natural world also gave architect Jeanne Gang a different sense of urgency with this project.

Jeanne Gang: It elevated the crisis, if you will. And it made me think that, besides just presenting the facts, we have to feel the wonder, let's say, of nature, because it's also an emotional thing.

That's why I think art and science can work well together, because we need the facts, but we also need to see the beauty of it.

Jeffrey Brown: That includes the architect herself, who couldn't help cast her eyes around the new library shed designed for the Gilder Center.

I noticed you look that way.

Jeanne Gang: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And you liked it, right?

Jeanne Gang: I did, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Why?

Jeanne Gang: I — well, I was noticing, like, how the light is working on the outside surface, but how the portal allows you to see beyond.

Jeffrey Brown: And it is working for you?

Jeanne Gang: Yes, it is.

Jeffrey Brown: You are happy?

Jeanne Gang: Yes, I am. I'm wanting to go over and explore it right now.

Jeffrey Brown: That, of course, is what everyone involved here hopes future visitors will feel as well.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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