Panama City’s museums explore the country’s natural and social history—useful primers if you’re intent on better understanding the Central American destination.
From honoring the contributions of immigrant labor to the canal to the emergence of the isthmus itself, Panama City’s museums cover a wealth of interesting topics. They are the best.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo: the best for contemporary art
Panama’s only art museum, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Panamá (popularly known as MAC Panamá), has the largest collection of Panamanian art in the world. Founded as a nonprofit NGO in 1962, the museum gained permanent space in 1983 after purchasing and refurbishing the former Masonic Temple in the canal zone settlement of Ancón.
Today, the museum houses some 700 contemporary works by artists from across Latin America. Media include oil paintings, drawings, lithographs, photographs, sculptures and ceramics.
In addition to hosting permanent and temporary exhibitions, it welcomes art students to attend workshops and conferences (in Spanish). Its graphic lab currently trains new and emerging artists in traditional printmaking, and its library contains exhibition catalogs and volumes on Panamanian art.
BioMuseo: the best for ecological history
The Isthmus of Panama emerged from the ocean about 15 million years ago. First as a chain of volcanic islands, then as an unbroken, serpentine land bridge that united the American continents and divided the seas.
Designed by master architect Frank Gehry, the pioneering BioMuseo explores the significance of these events. Nestled by the canal on Amador Causeway, the museum took 15 years to build, from concept to opening in 2014. Gehry’s signature roof is a random, multicolored jumble that symbolizes the diversity of the natural world and the shifted rainforest canopy.
The BioMuseo is a giant art-science project that uses creative media to explore themes such as biodiversity, ecological interdependence, evolution, extinction and deep time.
Exhibits are spread across eight galleries designed by Bruce Mau in consultation with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Panama.
His gallery is dedicated to the Great Biotic Exchange – a mass migration event that transformed the biogeography of North and South America. It includes 97 life-size sculptures of prehistoric animals scurrying across the isthmus – watch out for the mastodon and the giant ground sloth.
Weil Art Gallery and Galeria Arteconsult are among the best art galleries in Panama City
Beyond the MAC Panama, a slew of chic galleries and shops represent the city’s burgeoning art scene. Some reside in the newly gentrified historic district of Casco Viejo; others are hidden in the shiny sprawl of the banking district. Plan your route carefully and always check opening times before you go.
In the Bella Vista neighborhood, Weil Art Gallery is a bustling contemporary gallery run by Brazilian art dealer Carlos Weil. In Punta Paitilla, Arteconsult Gallery has been dealing with contemporary Latin American art for more than three decades.
In Casco Viejo, Karavan stocks quality indigenous arts and crafts. In Marbella, NG Gallery hosts several interesting artists from Cuba, such as Jorge Otero and William Acosta. In El Cangrejo, Tamarind is a contemporary art house with an amazing selection of pieces by Panamanian artists. The Cruz family owns Marion Gallery in the San Francisco neighborhood. The family has deep roots in the Panamanian art world.
Afro-Caribbean Museum of Panama: the best for social history
Housed in a wooden plank chapel built by Barbadian missionaries in 1910, the Afro-Caribbean Museum of Panama tells the story of West Indian immigrants who came to Panama in the 19th and 20th centuries.
For several decades, tens of thousands of people migrated from the Caribbean to work on the railroad, canal, and United Fruit banana plantations in Bocas del Toro.
A self-styled “Panama man” was a well-made island boy, but the reality of working on the mainland was harsh and unforgiving. Thousands of West Indian workers, mostly Jamaicans, perished in the disastrous French effort to build the canal, resulting in an epidemic of malaria and yellow fever.
Health conditions improved under the Americans, but the canal company continued to enforce a system of racial segregation. The museum honors and preserves the memory of the Afro-Caribbeans who contributed so much to the construction and culture of Panama.
Exhibits include artifacts, historic photos, and models of a bedroom and kitchen depicting the lives of immigrant canal workers.
Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá: the best for the history of the canal
The Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá overlooks the manicured gardens of Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903.
The Roosevelt administration supported the rebellion and aided its victory with the United States Navy gunboat, USS Nashville, intervening to prevent Colombian forces from reaching Panama City.
A few weeks later, the United States acquired the bankrupt French Canal Company and all of their works, along with a five-mile-wide strip of land across the isthmus, the Canal Zone, an unincorporated U.S. territory in society and a de facto state within a state. .
Located in the old 19th century Grand Hotel, which served as the headquarters of the French and American canal companies, the museum traces the historical evolution of Panama as a country of transit and transhipment.
Beginning with the transcontinental mule trains of the Spanish Empire, the museum guides visitors through the events that transformed the isthmus into a hub of global commerce.
Visitors learn about the construction of the Panama Railroad, the French attempt to build the canal, and the ensuing American effort, culminating in the handover of the canal in 1999. Most exhibits are in Spanish, but audio guides in English are available.
Museo de la Mola: the best for Guna art
The small but brilliant Mola Museum explores the art and symbolism of mola – an inverted applied textile made by Guna women. Traditional designs include psychedelic arrays of geometric shapes and abstract patterns that the Guna once tattooed on their bodies with jagua ink, much like the Emberá and the Wounaan still do.
Modern mola designs include birds, animals, fish, mythical beings and totems, or even ships and planes. Molas are usually sewn on the front and back of blouses (mola means “blouse” in the Duleyanga language). They can also be used as throw pillows or wall art.
Tips for buying molas
Molas are lightweight, not flimsy, and easy to wrap – they make great keepsakes and personal gifts. Composed of up to seven stacked layers of fabric, but usually three or four, each mola is cut to expose the design feature underneath and the hem is then folded over and sewn.
The mola is built gradually layer by layer. They can be machine-made in minutes or painstakingly hand-rendered over months. Avoid molas with circles or triangles that have been added to fill the space. Avoid molas whose colors have bleached in the sun. Always check the fabric quality of all diapers.
The mola should not crease when you run your hand over it. Seams should be even, tight and invisible from the front. Expect to pay between 20 and 50 USD for a decent but basic mola measuring 30 by 44 cm (11X17 inches). The more layers, the higher the price; the best ones cost hundreds of dollars.
Visit the Museo de la Mola before refueling molas. There are many places to buy them in the city, including Guna Street vendors on the flower-adorned Paseo de las Bóvedas in Casco Viejo.