As part of a formal Memorandum of Understanding signed in Havana on July 9, The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and Cuban National Museum of Natural History (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Cuba, MNHN) will collaborate on research, exhibitions, and education.
The July 9 agreement follows a century of scientific collaboration between AMNH and Cuban researchers, including biologists from MNHN since that institution’s founding in 1960. AMNH also announced that on October 24, MNHN Curator Emeritus Gilberto Silva Taboada—a world-renowned expert on Caribbean bats—will receive an honorary degree from AMNH’s Richard Gilder Graduate School.
As the first initiative under the agreement, the American Museum of Natural History announced that this fall it will present a bilingual exhibition, ¡Cuba!, about the Caribbean island nation. In addition to the two natural history museums, the MOU was signed by the Cuban Environmental Agency (Agencia de Medio Ambiente).
¡Cuba! will explore the extraordinary biodiversity across the island’s remote forests, deep caves, expansive wetlands, and dazzling reefs through immersive exhibits that have been developed with colleagues at MNHN. In addition, the exhibition will highlight Cuba’s culture, its peoples, and its history.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean region, technically an archipelago made up of more than 4,000 islands and cays. It is known for its exceptional biodiversity: about 50% of its plants and 32% of its vertebrate animals are endemic, species that are found only on the island. ¡Cuba! is co-curated by Dr. Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and Dr. Chris Raxworthy, curator-in-charge in the AMNH Department of Herpetology.
It will include live animals and specimens as well as artifacts and lifelike models representing the island’s distinctive wildlife, from a venomous mammal to the world’s smallest bird. Highlights include a re-creation of Zapata wetlands, home to the endangered Cuban crocodile; a reconstructed cave environment where visitors can examine fossil remains of extinct species such as Megalocnus rodens, a giant ground sloth once common to the island; and live lizards, boas, and frogs.
In addition to focusing on Cuban biodiversity, the exhibition will showcase Cuban culture and life—including art, music, spiritual traditions, celebrations, food, and farming. A long, open boulevard evoking the street life one might find in a Cuban city will invite visitors to stroll, sit, and discover Cuban culture through music, dance performances, and a variety of interactive experiences. Other highlights include a re-creation of a throne used for orisha worship, an Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition known as Santeria; a gallery showcasing contemporary Cuban art; and a room revealing the craft of cultivating one of Cuba’s most famous crops, tobacco. An introductory film about Cuba’s history, from its first peoples to the 21st century, will provide visitors with historical context for contemporary realities.
As a leader in science and conservation, the American Museum of Natural History has long-standing research and capacity development collaborations with Cuban scientists at a number of institutions, including the MNHN, the University of Havana, the Cuban Botanical Society, and the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna. Museum scientists have led nearly 30 expeditions and field projects to Cuba over the last 120 years.
Building on this long legacy, the Museum recently launched a new research collaboration with Cuba under the banner ofExplore21—a comprehensive Museum initiative that began in 2013 to foster a series of innovative scientific expeditions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The Explore21 program, which previously sent teams to the Solomon Islands and to Papua New Guinea, supports exploratory fieldwork that is multidisciplinary, heavily integrated with emerging technologies, and focused on delivering real-world applications by discovering new species, conserving biodiversity, and uncovering new knowledge about the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it.
In the fall of 2015, the Explore21 Expedition to Cuba sent a team of Museum and Cuban scientists to Humboldt National Park, one of the most remote and biologically important areas of the country, to advance the understanding of Cuban biodiversity, its evolution, biogeography, and conservation. Led by Dr. Porzecanski, Dr. Susan Perkins, a curator in the AMNH Division of Invertebrate Zoology, and Dr. George Amato, director of the AMNH Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, the research team included conservation biologists, ornithologists, herpetologists, mammalogists, arachnologists, and microbiologists from the AMNH, MNHN, and Humboldt National Park. ¡Cuba! will feature footage from the expedition’s 2015 survey of Humboldt Park. In the coming year, AMNH and MNHN plan to collaborate on a second Explore21 Expedition to Cuba.
Dr. Silva Taboada, MNHN Curator Emeritus and bat expert who participated in the 2015 Explore21 Expedition, will be awarded the Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa, by the AMNH Richard Gilder Graduate School at its 2016 commencement on October 24, in recognition of his distinguished career and extraordinary contributions to science.
¡Cuba! will be open to the public from Monday, November 21, 2016, to August 13, 2017. Museum Members will be able to preview the exhibition on Friday, November 18, Saturday, November 19, and Sunday, November 20.