Cuba, a Caribbean isle whose recently unmuted siren song is attracting sophisticated travelers, has just come a little closer.
In conjunction with the island nation of Cuba opening up to foreign influence at political, touristic and economic levels, its culture and biodiversity have planted a beachhead in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
The new exhibit ¡CUBA! is a modest, but rich exploration and presentation of the wonders of the country, both natural and cultural. It is a collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History and its Cuban counterpart, the Cuban National Museum of Natural History; two institutions which share more than a century of collaboration.
We tend to think of Cuba as “an” island, but in fact, the boundaries of its archipelago encompass more than 4,000 islands and keys, stretching almost 1000 miles across the Caribbean. It is an ecologically diverse landscape, where scientists were surprised to find that an impressive 50 percent of its plants and 32 percent of its vertebrate animals are endemic, meaning they are found only on the island.
Families will be especially interested in several skillfully rendered dioramas of rich native coastal habitats, as well as photography of the islands. There’s a reproduction of a partial cave that features the skeleon of a Giant Sloth that once graced the land, and a model of a Giant Owl, now extinct. Beautifully patterned live lizards, frogs, and snakes roam their small habitats and stare at the rather large, odd creatures looking in on them. Most engaging is the Multimedia Gallery where young visitors can pursue what interests them on touch screens and kiosks.
Human cultural diversity is equally well represented. You can first enjoy a fascinating documentary history of the island and its dramatic mid-20th century politics, leading up to the recent detente in US-Cuban relations. Stroll down a Havana boulevard, past a 1955 Chevy BelAir, typical of the cars still running on Cuban roads. Enter a tobacco shop, head into a cafe, past a display of Santeria religious icons and to a shop with typical, brightly colored Cuban posters and art work, all to the rich sounds of Cuban music.
You can even try your hand at dominos, played by many in the sidewalk cafes of this immensely diverse and fascinating country.
For those who can’t get to Cuba yet, have a taste of it in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, then head out to Calle Ocho, the excellent Cuban restaurant across 81st Street, in the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel.
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