STRI’s cool new fence

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STRI director Matthew Larsen, who hosted the Smithsonian’s new dean and undersecretary for museums and research John Davis for the occasion, ceremonially dedicated the artistic new fence around STRI headquarters on January 11. STRI photo.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s protective new artwork

photos by STRI

You don’t call it a fence anymore. The Smithsonian’s headquarters in Panama is now surrounded by a “chromostructure,” and to call it that is a sign of respect for noted artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. Yes, it does serve as a barrier to limit the number of entrance and exit points to the campus that occupies the site where once stood the old Tivoli Hotel. A small remnant of the Tivoli is actually incorporated into this, the headquarters of the only Smithsonian outpost outside of the United States, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

A fence not far from the Tivoli acquired great notoriety in the events of January, 1964. That structure is long gone, one of the first things to be dismantled in the long conversion of the old Canal Zone. The most prestigious academic institution in Panama, however, has its own new generation of security needs.

It’s not that STRI didn’t have those needs or a protective barrier five years ago, but it is a different time, under different leadership, which calls for new symbolism. The institute is most noteworthy for its biological research, even if anthropology and archaeology have also been important parts of its work. But the current director broke the mold just with his credentials — Matthew Larsen is a geologist rather than a biologist. The United States is run by an anti-scientific crowd these days, with France openly headhunting to hire away scientists, people from STRI’s international research staff in many cases looking for jobs with which fanatics in Washington are less able to interfere, and meanwhile China is the rising scientific giant.
 
But the Smithsonian is many things, including the home of artistic excellence. The French and Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez is one of the great op artists on the world scene today, and the look that he has given STRI changes color with the perspective from which it is viewed. It’s a great optical illusion in aluminum and urethane paint. It’s an instant Panama City landmark.

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