Curious about Cuba, but not ready to splurge on flights? You're in luck. ¡Cuba!, a vibrant celebration of the island nation, recently opened for a nine-month run at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Although the exhibit's debut seems perfectly timed to coincide with the passing of Fidel Castro, and the recent softening of relations between the United States and Cuba, museum officials said it has been in the works for a century, with AMNH researchers delving in to the country's rich biodiversity for decades, working hand-in-hand with local scientists even while the countries' leadership feuded. It's the largest island (actually an archipelago of 4,000 islands and keys) in the Caribbean, and while it is well known for its cigars, vintage automobiles, politics, and vibrant music, it also boasts a unique natural history, hundreds of plant and animals species you can't find anywhere else, and is one of the most biologically diverse islands on the planet.
The new exhibit honors Cuba's rich history, changing culture, famous Salsa music, cuisine, and incredible biodiversity in an immersive, unexpected way and is presented in both English and Spanish. Kids will enjoy the many hands-on interactives, recreated habitats, and live reptiles and amphibians on display.
It joins several ongoing exhibits at the Natural History museum that are expected to close in January 2017, including Dinosaurs Among Us and Crocs: Ancient Predators in a Modern World. Don't worry, though, that titanosaur is still hanging out on the fourth floor with the rest of the dinos! And don't forget that the seasonal butterfly atrium opens soon, too.
The exhibition features a long, open city boulevard emulating a street you might find in Cuba.
¡Cuba! opens with an overview of the country, a look at its people, a map of the island, and a short video explaining its history, including relations with the United States. As you turn the corner you enter a recreation of a bustling Havana street, complete with a pristine 1955 Chevy Bel Air (my dream car). Each storefront offers a deeply engaging exploration into a different slice of what makes Cuba unique.
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Tobacco shed where cigars are made.
A stroll down the right side of the street lets visitors discover Cuba's relationship with religion, sugar cane—the country's main crop—and why Cuban cigars are world renowned, all while listening to salsa and other traditional Cuban music, which can be heard throughout. At the end of the street is an interactive art gallery featuring contemporary Cuban screen printing and more. Visitors can also take a seat at an alfresco cafe to examine Cuba's cuisine and learn how our national sport is their national sport, too.
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See the Cuban boa in the Zapata wetlands habitat recreated in the musuem. Photo by R. Mickens/courtesy of AMNH.
As you cross the street, the soundscape changes to things you might hear in the natural world: the pounding surf, chirping birds, and noises from other sea and land critters. This is the section the kids will really enjoy. First up is a recreation of the enormous Zapata wetlands, the only place on earth to see the endangered Cuban crocodile, followed by reproductions of coral reefs (and the rays that live there) and Humboldt National Park—all important conservation sites. Here kids can check out live reptiles, birds and amphibians, including the Cuban boa, the Cuban tree frog, and six different species of tree-dwelling lizards called anoles. While not on display, you can learn about the world's tiniest bird, the Bee Hummingbird, just 1/20th of an ounce—about the size of a bee.
The last bit of the exhibit features a replica of a cave where kids can examine cave paintings, a model of the world's largest owl, now extinct, and fossilized remains of a giant ground sloth once commonly found on the island.
Try a game of Cuban dominos. Photo by the author.
There are some fun interactives for the kids, too, like playing a game of Cuban dominoes (different than what we're used to), taking a whiff of Cuban coffee, listing to modern music on vintage radios, and flipping through cards for the country's 16 baseball teams.
¡Cuba! can be found in the special exhibits hall on the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History, located on Central Park West at 79th Street. The exhibit runs through August 13, 2017. Museum Plus One admission and timed tickets are required to view the exhibit.
Top image: A 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air on display at the beginning of the exhibition’s boulevard reveals the story behind the vintage cars that famously rumble down Cuban streets. Unless otherwise noted, all photo by D. Finnin/courtesy of AMNH.