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'Barro Colorado Island: 100 Years of Discoveries and Wonder' at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC showcases an exhibit on STRI’s Barro Colorado Island, ForestGEO’s first plot, in honor of its 100th year. The exhibit is open until January 2024.

Entrance to the exhibit, green leafy background with yellow box announcing Barro Colorado 100 Years
The entrance to the BCI exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Upon entering the exhibit on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), you are immediately immersed in a tropical rainforest. Sounds of insects, thunderstorms, and howling monkeys follow you as you explore the island’s rich history and biodiversity. BCI is the most extensively studied tropical forest in the world, thanks to its early establishment as a research station in 1923. In 1980, BCI became ForestGEO’s first large-scale forest dynamics plot, starting a network which now includes over 70 plots worldwide. The exhibit takes a deep dive into the wonders of BCI, drives home the importance of long-term research and data collection, and showcases the diverse people and projects that make BCI what it is today.

Before and after photos of the research center
BCI in the 1950's vs. today.

We spoke with Beth King, STRI’s Communications Manager and Science Interpreter, about what went into creating the exhibit and what it means to share the legacy of BCI with the public on such a grand stage.

Where did the idea for an exhibit on BCI come from?

STRI is unique within the Smithsonian Institution since it is the only branch of the Smithsonian that exists outside of the United States, and the Institution wanted to acknowledge that as part of the idea that we are all part of ‘One Smithsonian.’ Lina Gonzalez, another member of the communications team at STRI, and I worked together to create the content of the exhibit. We got feedback from many of our team members and collaborated with the museum before we ended up with the final result.

How long did the process take from the exhibit’s conception to opening?

It took about two years. The entire first year was spent researching and planning what we wanted to include in the exhibit. The second year was spent coordinating with museum staff, drafting how the exhibit would look, editing captions, and so on. We were working on the exhibit throughout the pandemic, which was a learning curve and an added challenge to the project since it was a collaborative effort. The exhibit opened in November 2022.

Photos of the exhibit space, two women sitting on a bench watching a video
Museum visitors enjoying the exhibit space. 

How did you decide what to include in the exhibit?

It was hard to choose! I’ve been working at STRI for about 30 years now and have seen a lot of change within the organization. As a guide on BCI and now working in the Communications Office, I’ve had time to get to know the island, the scientists, and the projects. We wanted to highlight the growth that has occurred within the organization. Things were different a hundred years ago – we wanted to show that the conversation is changing, both with who is having the conversation and what they’re talking about. We also wanted to share some of the stories and projects that are favorites of staff and visitors alike, the things that people respond to, as well as things that are especially relevant today, like the information on climate change. It ended up being a bit of a sampler showcasing the diversity of projects on the island, as well as the diversity of the people who are doing the projects. Most museum exhibits don’t necessarily show living people, but rather people from the past, so we wanted to spotlight some of the amazing scientists currently working on the island.

I left the exhibit with a strong impression of how and why research sites like this are important – what sets BCI apart from other long-term research stations?

One big thing is that our staff scientists live in Panama and consistently work on the island, unlike many other remote field stations where there are scientists who go for a short time but don’t really experience the place. At BCI, we do have about 1200 scientific visitors every year, many of whom are coming from around the world, but the core—the staff—actually live here in Panama. It is a U.S. institution, but it’s very embedded in Panama, and that makes a big difference. While there is that colonial heritage, it’s evolving beyond that. I can really see that in the last 30 years that there’s movement in the right direction, becoming more and more integrated and diverse.

Collage of photos of scientists performing research in the foresst
The exhibit showcased many STRI and ForestGEO scientists. 

What has it meant for the STRI/BCI community to be able to share this project on such a grand stage?

We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the museum, and it would be great to keep doing that because it’s a window to the world that we don’t have. Despite how long we’ve been around and all the science that’s gone on here in Panama, most people have never heard of STRI. So, it’s huge to be able to reach that kind of audience and to have the exhibit in the museum long term so that people who are interested can come back to it.

What else is in store for the celebration of 100 years of BCI?

In addition to the exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, an exhibit on BCI just opened at the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá. It has similar information, but we were able to include more interactive elements thanks to a larger exhibition space. There’s a special feeling about this exhibit being in Panama. Members of the STRI/BCI community will be able to take their families; even whole school groups will be able to see it and get an inside look into the Island. We may see a rise in visitors to BCI since the exhibit in Panama will be so close. We’re also working on a three volume book series that goes in depth about the plant diversity, animal behavior, and geography on the island. They will be really valuable to biologists in particular and will be full of all the stories and information we weren’t able to fit in the exhibits. Additionally, there is an upcoming symposium that will be for the scientists to celebrate the anniversary and all their efforts to make BCI what it is today.

Advertisement in Spanish for the BCI exhibit opening in Panama
Ad for the BCI exhibit in Panama.

Learn more about the exhibit here

Learn more about Barro Colorado Island here

Stay connected with STRI on Twitter (@STRI_Panama) and Instagram (@SmithsonianPanama) & with ForestGEO on Twitter (@ForestGEO)!