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Cuba Exhibit at National History Museum Explores Island's Life and Ecology

By Emily Frost | November 15, 2016 4:25pm
  "¡Cuba!"  opens next week at the American Museum of Natural History and runs through August 13.
Cuban Exhibit Aims to Spark Curiosity
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Have a case of post-election wanderlust? Stroll down a busy Havana street, step into a cigar factory, lock eyes with a giant owl and spot a tree lizard in the new "¡Cuba!" exhibit opening next week at the American Museum of Natural History.

The bilingual exhibit takes a broad approach to its exploration of the island nation, which museum President Ellen Futter described as "a culturally fascinating and biologically important place." 

"This show could not be more timely or of greater interest," she said Tuesday at an exhibit preview.

Given how much American interest and visits to Cuba have soared since the historic opening of diplomatic relations in 2015, the exhibit aims to "take people beyond the headlines" and offer a "fresh" take, said co-curator Ana Luz Porzecanski.

"¡Cuba!" does that by transporting visitors into the wetlands, caves, coral reefs and forests that make Cuba an incredibly ecologically diverse archipelago, she said. Thirty-two percent of its vertebrate animals are unique to Cuba and can only be found there, as are 80 percent of its reptiles, museum scientists said. 

The focus on the flora and fauna of Cuba is paired with an investigation of the nation's 20th Century history and a celebration of its arts and culture. 

"The biodiversity of Cuba is also part of Cuban identity and who the Cuban people are," said Porzencanski. 

Developed in partnership with the National Natural History Museum in Havana, "¡Cuba!" tells the story of species that can't be found anywhere else in the world: the extinct giant owl, the Cuban crocodile and the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. 

Visitors will also see live Cuban reptiles and amphibians, including the Cuban boa, the Cuban tree frog and tree-dwelling lizards called anoles.  

The stories of Cuban people from all walks of life are also interwoven into the exhibit. 

For those for whom Cuba has become synonymous with vintage cars, a masterfully restored 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air sits right in the center of the exhibition hall.

A "bicitaxi," part-bicycle part-taxi that became popular in the 1990s when some small businesses were allowed to operate, also made it in the hall. 

Along with capturing the vibrancy of Cuba — by building a faux boulevard with interactive experiences like dominos games and fruit-selling stands — the curators wanted to showcase the country's future as well. Dozens of posters by a new generation of Cuban artists are on display and information about conservation efforts and burgeoning small businesses is sprinkled throughout. 

Visitors should leave with a better understanding of Cuba's history and people, the country's biodiversity "and finally how Cuba is changing," said Porzencanski. 

The exhibit opens Nov. 21 and runs through Aug. 13.