Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

What New York’s Cave-Like Natural History Museum Misses About Nature

The immersive Invisible Worlds exhibition. Photo by Ismail Ferdous / Bloomberg

Under the vault of the 1936 Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, the eager young archaeologist exploring Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History meets Barosaurus and Allosaurus, skeletons cast in a frozen prehistoric battle.

Inside the enormous glass box of the 2000 Rose Center for Earth and Space at AMNH, the avid young astronaut finds the 87-foot-diameter fixed sphere representing the sun.

And between the gray canyon walls of the 2023 Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation at AMNH, the keen young entomologist encounters (finally!) signs of life. Tiny signs: the mesmerizing up-and-down procession of leafcutter ants dining on magnolia and forsythia in a habitat of glass and steel.

Designed by Studio Gang, the new $465 million, 230,000-square-foot Gilder Center looks like caves carved not from bedrock but out of Bedrock. Through its irregular openings, visitors will witness more movement — of people moving vertically up the central bank of sittable steps or crossing the void on a bridge reminiscent of a Brontosaurus neck. Beyond that, a thousand butterflies flutter in the second-floor vivarium. A little farther into the shadowed voids visitors will discover Invisible Worlds, a 12-minute immersive projection which splashes undersea creatures and brainwaves and visualizations of DNA across the walls and floor — all as if to say, take that, Van Gogh!