¡Cuba! Conquers the Concrete Jungle

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Staying in the city this week? While many are celebrating New Year’s elsewhere and the streets are at its quietest, there’s still plenty to explore right here in the ‘hood. If you haven’t visited the American Museum of Natural History’s ¡Cuba! exhibition yet, there’s no better time to go.

With all the buzz around Cuba lately, it’s certainly timely to feature an exhibition on the island nation, but the AMNH actually started collaborating with the Cuban National Museum of Natural History decades ago, to study its biological diversity and culture.

“In 2014, we had a discussion with our museum initiative, Explore21 [which fosters scientific expeditions to meet challenges and opportunities of the 21st century], to put in a proposal for our new exhibition and Cuba was the top choice,” says Dr. Chris Raxworthy, co-curator of ¡Cuba! and curator-in-charge of the AMNH’s department of herpetology (which studies reptiles and amphibians). “Then somewhere out of the blue we heard an announcement from the White House that the Obama administration was moving towards normalizing relations with Cuba. It seemed like an excellent moment and we decided to push ahead to the planning process.”

The bilingual exhibition—presented in English and Spanish—thoroughly highlights the natural history, native species, diverse ecosystems, geology and culture of Cuba, an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands and keys. It’s designed—from the sights and sounds to scents—to make you feel as if you are there.

Upon entering, you’re greeted with life-size photographs of Cubans alongside quotes expressing their insights on their island nation. Up next, a 10-minute video sums up the history of the country from the past to the present.

Moving along, there’s a panoramic view of colorful buildings on a Havana street, adjacent to a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, an iconic car of the locale.

The center of the exhibition reflects how a typical street in the country looks. There’s a bicitaxi (Cuba’s pedicab), fresh fruit stand, radio (you’re free to change stations to any genre, from rock to classical music), and tables—there’s one where you can sit down and play a game of dominoes and another filled with model plates of popular meals.

In addition, there are several rooms that give you a sense of Cuba’s caves, forests, coral reefs, wetlands, religious traditions and contemporary art. A number of lifelike replica animals are present, from crocodiles to the extinct giant 39-inch-tall owl, Ornimegalonyx, the largest bird that ever lived.

One room is devoted to a history of Cuba’s justly famous tobacco. Inside, you can smell the fragrant smoke of the tobacco leaves, a profitable crop that led to the opening of its first cigar factories in the 1800s. To this day, cigars are still one of its leading exports. Around 100 million are handcrafted and shipped around the world yearly.

“It took a little under two years to put the exhibition together, which, for us is relatively fast as we already had extensive collections here and help from colleagues in Cuba,” says Dr. Raxworthy. “We also had outside consultants and specialists that advised us to make it as absolutely accurate as possible.”

At the exit, there are more life-size photographs of Cubans alongside quotes on their aspirations for the future of their homeland. “Here, as we are, we can do anything. You are not hindered or anything. What you have to do is fight and work and go for it,” notes Katherine Acevedo, ballet dancer from Camagüey, Cuba.

“What we hope visitors would take away most, is to learn new aspects of this interesting place that would really surprise them,” says Dr. Raxworthy. “We want to stimulate their curiosity. Maybe some will even jump on a plane to discover more about Cuba.”

The American Museum of Natural History’s ¡Cuba! exhibition will be on view until August 13, 2017.


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by AVENUE insiderPhotographed by Annie Watt Agency / Sipa USA