The unique architecture and interiors of the Center were designed by Studio Gang. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Agnieszka (Aga) Pierwola put her phone face down on the table. On the back cover were a series of rare butterfly stickers. Pierwola is the museum specialist for Lepidoptera (the study of butterflies and moths) at the newly minted Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation.

Agnieszka Pierwola, a butterfly specialist at the museum, explains how butterfly specimens have been mounted for hundreds of years. Photo: Hari Adivarekar.
Photo: Hari Adivarekar

The center is located on the campus of the Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She looked at us press folk with her piercing eyes before breaking into a warm smile and lifting the lid on a box bearing a collection of mounted butterflies that were almost 200 years old. Neon blue wings sprung out at us as she explained how the specimens were mounted and told us little stories about the biologists responsible. “The Gilder Center is about getting people excited about science,” she said. 

An 8,000-pound model of a beehive with multiple lobes of combs allows visitors to “enter” the hive’s interior and see honey bees at work on integrated video displays. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

It’s easy to see it succeeding in its mission, with more than 4 million specimens on record at the center. In the vivarium, the live versions of butterflies surrounded us, flying through a mini tropical paradise created to help them thrive. In the midst of the verdant foliage were plates of butterfly food, mostly fruits, placed under magnifying glasses so you could see the fibers of their wings as they fed. In the insectarium we followed thousands of leaf cutter ants on their journey through the beams of a large aquarium that opened into a bridge leading into a series of large glass goblets where the ants build their nests. A transparent view into the inner lives of an ant colony isn’t new but this scale enabled us to see something truly wild contained in manmade structures. 

A selection of cleared and stained fish on display, to ensure their bones and cartilage visible, a method used before CT scans were invented. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

A melange of other creepy crawlies of all sizes, from inches to millimeters, mounted or alive populated this popular section of the museum. In other parts there were skeletons of extinct fish, preserved bodies of large toads, geological marvels, meteor fragments, fossils and all manner of ceramics and bric-a-brac spanning thousands of years.

A giant toad finds a moment of calm suspended and preserved in formaldehyde. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

The swirling naked surface building, designed by Studio Gang, felt like the inside of a giant organism, reminiscent of the work of the great Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Even the restaurant eschewed the usual museum fare for a fine dining experience that could easily be penciled in for a date night. Added to this are multiple classrooms and a sprawling library set to receive elementary and high school students for day long interactive sessions or week long residencies.

The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation will open its doors to the public on Thursday, May 4. Entry to the Museum of Natural History campus is based on timed admission that can be booked on their website. The campus is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is pay-what-you-wish for residents of the New York tri-state area.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photographer, film director/producer, journalist, podcaster, yoga practitioner, urban explorer, and in a different life, a singer in a rock and roll band. His work has...

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