A Manhattan Museum Looks at Cuba’s Exotic Fauna and Flora

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A report by Helen Stapinski for The New York Times.

In a giant production studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in July, volunteers were busy making 2,986 tobacco leaves — painting, distressing and scrunching pieces of brown paper by hand. Nearby, an artist built part of a coral reef from towels, to get the texture just right, while a fellow artist sculpted a giant, killer prehistoric owl.

Welcome to Cuba. The American Museum of Natural History version.

For 120 years, scientists from Cuba and the museum have worked closely on studying the biodiversity of the island, and come November, the fruits of that study and cooperation will be on display in “¡Cuba!,” the museum’s first bilingual exhibition.

“The beautiful thing about science is that it transcends the political issues,” said Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. The museum has led nearly 30 expeditions to Cuba over the past century, including one last fall. Dr. Porzecanski and her colleague Chris Raxworthy, curator in change of herpetology, are now working with artists to make sure the exhibition’s animals and plants resemble real specimens as much as possible.

In addition to the models, “¡Cuba!” will feature live animals, such as bearded anoles, boa constrictors and Cuban tree frogs — one of Dr. Raxworthy’s specialties. He recently led a tour through the herpetology department, where the exhibition’s creatures had taken up residence in glass tanks to await the show’s opening.

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The genesis of the exhibition had as much to do with good timing as with scientific research. Two years ago, Dr. Raxworthy and his fellow scientists held a meeting to discuss the next project for Explore21, a comprehensive museum initiative that began in 2013 to promote a series of innovative scientific expeditions. The Explore21 program has sent teams to the Solomon Islands and to Papua New Guinea. On the same day that the scientists met to discuss Explore21’s next destination — Cuba was an option — President Obama announced striking policy changes with the island nation, re-establishing diplomatic ties and making it easier for Americans to travel there.

“Everything was just perfectly aligned,” Dr. Raxworthy said. “It seemed like this decisive moment. So we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’” Last October, Dr. Raxworthy, Dr. Porzecanski and a team of scientists traveled to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, on the southern tip of Cuba. Along with colleagues from the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, they explored forests and caves filled with animals — such as birds, amphibians and a certain species of bat — that exist only in Cuba

Like many islands, Cuba is known for gigantism and miniaturism: species that grow very large or very small. Examples, models of which will be on view in the exhibition, include a now-extinct giant owl and the bee hummingbird. The owl, which disappeared from the island around 10,000 years ago, may have been one of the largest flying birds in the world at the time, standing around three feet tall and weighing 30 pounds. The bee hummingbird is currently the smallest bird in the world, weighing less than a penny.

Because Cuba was off-limits for more than a half-century, many Americans are unfamiliar with its culture, Dr. Raxworthy said. Displays on Cuban art and music are part of the exhibition, as is the re-creation of a throne used for orisha worship, the Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition also known as Santeria.

As part of the Zapata wetlands display, a swamp is being constructed in the workshop, and an endangered Cuban crocodile is being sculpted. The artist Rebecca Meah was busy scraping at a crocodile-shaped slab of clay recently. “You’ve become an expert in crocodilian scalation,” Dr. Raxworthy said to Ms. Meah, apparently a huge compliment. She smiled and continued scraping away.

The reptile’s large head was cast from the skull of a Cuban crocodile that lived at the Bronx Zoo for decades. Come November, he will have a second life.

“His name,” Dr. Raxworthy said, “was Fidel.”

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