/ Buildings / American Museum of Natural History Announces Conceptual Design for New Science Center

American Museum of Natural History Announces Conceptual Design for New Science Center

Matt Ball on November 9, 2015 - in Buildings, Corporate, Design/Engineering

The Board of Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History today endorsed the conceptual design for the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a new building that will invite visitors to experience the Museum not only as a place of public exhibitions but as an active scientific and educational institution. In addition, the Board authorized proceeding to schematic design.

Designed by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects and set into the Columbus Avenue side of the Museum complex at 79th Street, the Gilder Center is the embodiment of the Museum’s increasingly integrated mission of science, education, and exhibition. At a time of urgent need for better public understanding of science and for greater access to science education, the Gilder Center will offer visitors, including the general public and school groups, new ways to learn about science and to share in the excitement of discovery. To ensure that the next generation has the skills and imagination for scientific innovation, the Gilder Center will provide interdisciplinary learning spaces that place STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and other educational experiences in the context of world-class scientific research and collections.

The conceptual design for the Gilder Center is consistent with longstanding but previously unrealized aspects of the Museum’s 1872 master plan, while reflecting a contemporary architectural approach that is responsive to the Museum’s mission and to the current uses and character of the surrounding Theodore Roosevelt Park and neighborhood.

“The Gilder Center embraces the Museum’s integrated mission and growing role in scientific research and education and its enhanced capacity to make its extensive resources even more fully accessible to the public,” said Museum President Ellen V. Futter. “It will connect scientific facilities and collections to innovative exhibition and learning spaces featuring the latest digital and technological tools. Jeanne Gang’s thrilling design facilitates a new kind of fluid, cross-disciplinary journey through the natural world while respecting the Museum’s park setting.”

Architectural Concept

In developing the architectural concept for the new Center, Jeanne Gang worked from the inside out.  She saw an opportunity to reclaim the physical heart of the Museum and to complete connections between and among existing Museum galleries and new space, leading to a conceptual design that includes links to 10 Museum buildings through 30 connections.

“We uncovered a way to vastly improve visitor circulation and Museum functionality, while tapping into the desire for exploration and discovery that are emblematic of science and also part of being human,” said Gang. “Upon entering the space, natural daylight from above and sightlines to various activities inside invite movement through the Central Exhibition Hall on a journey towards deeper understanding. The architectural design grew out of the Museum’s mission.”

In designing the Central Exhibition Hall, which will serve as the Museum’s Columbus Avenue entrance, Gang came up with the core idea of connecting this space to the geographic center of the Museum. Informed by processes found in nature, the gallery forms a continuous, flowing spatial experience along an east-west axis, allowing visitors to move beneath and across connective bridges and along sculpted walls that house the Museum’s many programs. Recessed cavities in the sculptural walls create niches that will house exhibition elements designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, as well as laboratories, imaging facilities, visualization theaters, and classrooms while also revealing more of the Museum’s extensive scientific collections. Following Studio Gang’s signature approach, in which material and structure are expressed for their inherent properties, the reinforced concrete walls of the Central Exhibition Hall, with its arches and niches, will have more than a purely aesthetic purpose: they will form the weight-bearing structure of the building’s interior.

The visual language of the Central Exhibition Hall informed the conceptual design of the façade, which imagines the interior walls emerging and wrapping around the exterior. The exterior will be clad in glass and stone, which will be selected in the upcoming design phase with consideration of materials used in the existing complex. The conceptual design maintains the current heights of the Museum building complex on its western side, placing the Columbus Avenue façade at the same height as the buildings on either side of the new entrance. On the south side, the façade is aligned with the adjacent building and steps back to meet the bordering building to the north. The conceptual design is consistent with the axial intention of the original 1872 master plan while recognizing the park setting in which the Museum is located.

The design greatly enhances visitor circulation at a museum where annual attendance has grown from approximately 3 to 5 million over the past several decades. It connects an array of existing galleries to new ones in ways that highlight intellectual links across different scientific disciplines, create adjacencies among and facilitate interaction within classrooms, laboratories, collections, and library resources, and place educational experiences within current scientific practice.

“With active learning environments for classes and the general public that better align with the highly interdisciplinary world that we live in, the Gilder Center will reveal the latest scientific thinking and its relevance to many of the most important issues of our time. It will enable learners of all ages and backgrounds to better understand the world around them and their place in it. It will also connect for the first time, both physically and intellectually, many of the Museum’s existing galleries, thereby vastly improving visitor circulation and experience,” said Futter.

“We are focused on the needs of 21st-century learners, offering unparalleled opportunities to engage with science and scientists. The exhibits in the Gilder Center will incorporate a blend of innovative learning strategies and imaging technologies with the Museum’s extraordinary collections and far- reaching scientific research,” said Ralph Appelbaum of Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

Mobile technology will be integrated throughout the new Center for seamless links between onsite and digital visitor journeys of discovery, a fully realized extension of what the Museum first piloted in 2010 with the introduction of the first indoor-navigation app, Explorer, which is currently being updated with more personalized and contextualized features.

Science and Education at the Museum

Since its founding in 1869, the Museum has had a dual mission of science and education. Over the last two decades, these two aspects of the mission have become increasingly integrated. The Museum has established the Richard Gilder Graduate School, which grants both the Ph.D. degree and the degree in Master of Arts in Teaching with a specialization in Earth science. It works with partners on the national, state, and local levels to pilot and develop innovative programs that leverage its unique scientific resources to help address challenges in STEM education, substantially extending its role in enriching formal science education and in providing professional development for teachers. The Museum’s robust and growing portfolio of educational programs includes partnerships with schools, teacher professional development programs, and out-of-school programs for students that offer authentic research experiences, introduce digital tools of science, and explore college and career opportunities.

Major initiatives include the Urban Advantage Program, spearheaded by the Museum in partnership with seven other cultural institutions, the New York City Department of Education, and the Council of the City of New York, which this year will serve about 800 teachers in about 45 percent of the City’s middle schools across all five boroughs and which reaches approximately 80,000 students; onsite professional development offerings for roughly 4,500 teachers, ranging from intensive workshops to introductions to the Museum and learning resources for their students; and out-of-school programs for students from pre-K through high school that serve approximately 2,500 participants a year. The demand for these educational offerings, as well as participation, has grown across the board, but the space dedicated to education classrooms is insufficient, out of date, fragmented, and difficult to access. By both adding and updating learning spaces, the Gilder Center will significantly enhance the Museum’s capacity to serve New York students, teachers, and families.

“The American Museum of Natural History is so many things to New York: a cutting-edge research institution, an educational powerhouse, and a resource that New Yorkers and their families have enjoyed for generations,” said acting Cultural Affairs Commissioner Edwin Torres. “We look forward to working with the Museum to create an asset that allows residents and visitors even greater access to its extraordinary programming and exhibitions.”

Exhibition and Program Elements

More than any other gallery, the Central Exhibition Hall and the niches housed in its walls will reveal the Museum as an active scientific and educational institution with closely integrated educational experiences, scientific resources, and exhibition areas. The public will be able to engage with innovative tools used by Museum scientists, such as the tools used for gene mapping, 3D imaging, and big data assimilation and visualization, to gain a deeper understanding of nature’s complexity and how science is conducted today.

The Central Exhibition Hall will include a variety of education areas for learners of all ages and levels, including approximately the 500,000 visitors who come to the Museum as part of school and camp groups each year. Students of all backgrounds will have opportunities to observe and participate in the processes of scientific discovery in spaces designed to facilitate cross-disciplinary thinking and personalized learning.

“A distinctive strength of the Museum’s educational programs is that they offer a connection to actual scientific work, practitioners, and the tools and methods of scientific thinking and research. The Gilder Center will extend this experience to all visitors, providing a way for all to ask questions and to connect the dots between scientific discoveries and our daily lives,” said Futter.

Closely integrated exhibition and program elements in development include:

  • The Collections Core, a vertical feature spanning several floors that will showcase a working section of the Museum’s world-class collections and the activities of researchers who come to study its invaluable specimens and artifacts, which together form an irreplaceable record of life on Earth.
  • The Invisible Worlds Theater, an immersive theater thatwill reveal new frontiers of scientific research made accessible with new imaging technology, from the intricate architecture of the human brain to our microbial ecosystem, and from the shadowy depths of the ocean to the outer reaches of the atmosphere.
  • The Museum Library—one of the largest and most important natural history libraries in the world, which will now be revealed and made accessible to visitors and will offer a space for reading and contemplation surrounded by spectacular views of the Central Exhibition Hall and Theodore Roosevelt Park.
  • An insect hall, which willshowcase the variety of one of Earth’s most diverse and abundant groups with specimens from the Museum’s insect collection, one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of its kind, and live insects. The hall also will be the new home of the Museum’s popular live butterfly conservatory.
  • An interpretive wall, located at the center of the Museum’s building complex, which will orient visitors, facilitate way-finding, and spark further exploration by showcasing current science, illuminating important concepts such as geologic time scales and evolutionary relationships, and issuing real-time updates on the pulse of our planet in a mosaic of video, data imagery, and interactive exhibits. The interpretive wall will not only anchor the onsite visit but will also become a crucial part of a seamless visitor journey that integrates onsite experiences with visitors’ digital interactions with the Museum.
  • Exhibition niches, a series of open, recessed chambers with exhibitions that will connect the wonders of the natural world with our own powers of perception and sensation. Visitors will experience such phenomena as the deep blue light emitted from the depths of an ice cave, the sounds of a tropical rain forest teeming with life, and the ultrasound cries of bats in the night sky and of whales in the deep ocean—sounds that are out of range to the human ear without the aid of sensitive sonars.
  • Educational laboratories and classrooms, which will directly address the need to enhance STEM teaching and learning and enable teachers and students to access the Museum’s extensive scientific resources. New facilities in the Gilder Center will allow students to carry out research projects in data visualization and assembly that mirror those conducted by Museum scientists and better prepare them for secondary education and the workforce. Classrooms featuring the latest digital and technological tools will be connected to scientific facilities and collections, and will offer innovative spaces for teaching science to middle school, early childhood, family, and adult learners.
  • Scientific laboratories, which will be equipped with powerful state-of-the-art optical and electron microscopes, CT scanners, and workstations for 3D reconstruction and animation, will enable Museum scientists to image and analyze extensive amounts of information resident in fossil organisms, meteorites, and even cultural objects—all at levels of detail and accuracy that far exceed anything thought possible even a few years ago. Adjacent spaces will be devoted to investigators conducting computational research on big data produced through these detailed visualizations, with visitors having opportunities to observe ongoing lab investigations and resulting visualizations.

Project Information  

The Gilder Center is named for Museum Trustee Richard Gilder, who has donated more than $125 million to the Museum, including $50 million for the new center. The project cost is estimated to be $325 million, of which more than half has been raised.

Approximately 80 percent of the 218,000-square-foot project will be located within the area currently occupied by the Museum, creating vital connections throughout the complex. Three existing buildings within the Museum complex will be removed to minimize the impact on land that is now open space in Theodore Roosevelt Park to about 11,600 square feet (approximately a quarter acre).

If approved, construction of the Gilder Center will begin in 2017 after completion of the design. The goal is to open the Gilder Center in 2020, at the conclusion of the Museum’s 150th anniversary in 2019.

Project Team

In addition to Studio Gang Architects and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the Museum has engaged landscape design firm Reed Hilderbrand to work with the Parks Department on a proposed design for the part of the Theodore Roosevelt Park that borders the new Gilder Center.

The project management team on the project is Zubatkin Owner Representation.

Museum Architectural History

The history of the Museum’s architecture has always been an interplay between the original master plan, the evolution of architectural styles, and the institution’s changing functional, scientific, educational, and technological needs. The original master plan, which envisioned a great square with rigorous symmetry in the four street façades, was realized in the south façade but only partially completed in the north, east, and west sides of the Museum complex.

The Gilder Center conceptual design is consistent with the master plan while continuing the Museum’s long history of expressing its institutional identity, and the science of the day, in an architectural language that is fitting to its time and place, including its location in the Park.


American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org)

The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including in the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York State’s official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation’s 26th president, and a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of conservation. The Museum’s five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 33 million specimens and artifacts, as well as specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree. Beginning in 2015, the Richard Gilder Graduate School also began granting the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree, the only one of its kind. Annual attendance has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows can be seen in venues on five continents. The Museum’s website, mobile apps, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) extend its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more beyond its walls. Visit amnh.org for more information.

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