After a decade of stop-and-go development, the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo opened in early February. The debut marked a defining moment for the capital in the centennial of another game changer: the Panama Canal.

Actually, the museum’s protracted birth fits the subject matter of its galleries, which tell a story that began some 20 million years ago.

Tectonic plates clashed and underwater volcanoes roiled to form the land bridge between continents today known as the nation of Panama, reshaping global climate and propelling massive biodiversity.

Now, as Panama City transforms into a vibrant boomtown, Gehry’s riot of Play-Doh colors, convoluted shapes, and helter-skelter arrangements makes a new anchor for the evolving skyline.

Sensory overload continues inside the BioMuseo. In the Panamarama gallery, wall projections of native ecosystems such as tropical cloud and rain forests envelop visitors with the point of view of sea turtles, leafcutter ants, and other indigenous creatures.

Elsewhere, lopsided columns tower over gallerygoers to represent the igneous rock that thrust up from the depths of the sea to forge the country.

“Panama has always been more than the canal,” says spokesman Jorge Sanchez. “Now you can experience its history, people, biodiversity, and culture—within a work of art.”

> Tip: Explore the resurgent colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This piece was written by Jeanine Barone and originally appeared in Traveler‘s February/March 2014 issue. Follow Jeanine on Twitter @JCreatureTravel.