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An immersive exhibition introduces visitors to Cuba’s rich culture and biodiversity

¡Cuba!

Ana Luz Porzecanski and Chris Raxworthy, curators
American Museum of Natural History, New York
Through 13 August 2017

The passing of Fidel Castro brought renewed popular attention to Cuba, a nation whose turbulent history continues to spark passionate debate. Unlike its political history, however, the vast ecological and cultural richness that thrives in Cuba is relatively lesser known; so, too, is the challenge of conserving these resources in the wake of climate change. ¡Cuba!, a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, illuminates both, highlighting their inseparable connections. In so doing, it dispels and complicates the stereotypes that often punctuate more general understandings of the place, its people, and its complex history.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

The bilingual exhibition is on display through 13 August, 2017

Timely and ambitious, ¡Cuba! is also quite unusual for its dual agenda. Throughout, natural and social history are interlinked, allowing the visitor to experience the mutual, coproductive ways that nature and culture depend on one another.
On entering the exhibition, life-sized photos and quotations profile the lives and thoughts of a range of Cuba’s people, creating an ethnographic mosaic that combines greeting with reflection. Turning a corner, many of Cuba’s fundamental layers come into view: its biogeography, in which about 50% of its plants and 32% of its vertebrate animals are endemic, is depicted on a large mural map. Cuba’s population of 11 million people of diverse ancestry follows on another map. A short film explores the enduring imprint of conquest, colonialism, and revolution, noting the formative influences of trade in sugar, tobacco, and coffee.
A core promenade guides visitors through a Cuban streetscape offering coffee, fashion, a tobacco stand, and

©AMNH/D. Finnin

A representative city boulevard highlights Cuba’s rich culture.

a cart laden with fruits and vegetables. The latter underscores Cuba’s exemplary strides in urban agriculture: By 2012, about 90,000 people in Havana—one in 23—grew food to eat or sell, supplying a full 70% of the City’s fresh vegetables.

Stepping off the promenade, Cuba’s extraordinary natural landscape emerges. One alcove reconstructs a section from the network of caves that underlies 70% of Cuba’s land surface. An extinct giant owl, Ornimegalonyx, the largest owl that ever lived, and the fossil remains of a giant ground sloth once common to the island, greet the visitor here. Another alcove reproduces a trail through Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, featuring a fascinating mix of rare species like Solenodon cubanus, known in Cuba as the almiquí, and the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the world’s smallest bird.

©AMNH/R. MICKENS

Cuba is home to more than 190 species of butterfly, at least 35 of which have not been identified elsewhere.

Notable as well is a stunning reconstruction of the Gardens of the Queen coral reefs, where reproductions of coral forms and key species like the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) demonstrate the complex layers of life in this system. To simulate a journey underwater, a large video screen follows a diver through the reefs, while another screen depicts a time-series image of the massive coral larvae clouds that diffuse from these reefs across a wide swath of the Caribbean annually. A recreated fragment of the 1.5-million-acre Zapata Biosphere Reserve—the largest and most important wetlands in the Caribbean and home to both the critically endangered Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) and the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)—follows.

Although the emphasis in these ecological zones is biodiversity, human activity is never absent from the exhibition experience. Photos and quotations from scientists and conservationists describe extensive, ongoing projects, many of which depend on long-standing collaborations between Cuban and North American researchers.
Fully detailed in Spanish and English throughout, ¡Cuba! is more than just bilingual: It gives “voice” to biological diversity through carefully curated soundscapes. Ecological zones feature birdsong, for instance, notably in the Zapata Reserve, which is animated by the calls of some of its 370 bird species.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Zapata Biosphere Reserve covers 1.5 million acres in southwest Cuba.

Such comprehensive attention to Cuba’s richly biodiverse landscape and the importance of ongoing conservation and research left just one notable omission: Absent from mention or view was the military prison at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, which serves as a habitat for many endemic, and some endangered, species (1).
Returning to the urban promenade, a plaza invites the visitor to experience a simulated bicitaxi ride through Havana. An alcove just off the plaza features artwork from a wide range of visual artists, and another explores religious practice and diversity in Cuba.
Having traced a vast social and natural landscape, ¡Cuba! concludes as it opened, with life-sized photos and interview excerpts from ordinary Cubans. Each reflects on the challenge and promise of the future, and each reinscribes an overall portrait of a resilient socionatural landscape. Undeniable economic and environmental pressures punctuate Cuba’s present, but the visitor to ¡Cuba! leaves with a robust understanding of the critical importance of diversity for meeting the challenges of the future.

References

  1. J. Roman, J. Kraska. Science 351, 6279 (2016).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Departments of Environmental Studies and Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.