The fossil of a giant sloth is not a highlight one might expect to find at an exhibit about Cuba, the dynamic island just 90 miles south of Florida. Yet it's an oddly fitting start to ¡Cuba!, a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History about the island nation’s traditions, biodiversity and culture.

Developed in collaboration with the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, this bilingual exhibit attempts to “take people beyond the headlines,” according to Ana Luz Porzecanski, co-curator of ¡Cuba! and director of the AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. “Cuba is more than Cuban cigars, or its music, or its old cars.”

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That’s not to say those elements were left out — in fact, the wide-ranging exhibit does feature slick turquoise 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. But what makes it more than a glossy travelogue are its faithful recreations of authentic scenes that allow visitors to experience Cuba’s traditions and a slice of life on the socially and economically isolated island that’s just opening up to the world.

Staged in a replica of an open-air plaza with elegant colonnades and colorful arcades, the exhibition’s main “boulevard” contains definitive Cuban items — a bicitaxi, a carnival display and even a cafe setting — that make for a transportative experience. (If only the plastic cafecito and guava con queso were real.)

Visitors also get to literally step inside the history and methods of torcedores, professional cigar rollers whose meticulous craft was passed down over generations inside a very pungent replica of a tobacco shed. Also part of the exhibit are a stunning altar from the Orisha religion, a spiritual practice commonly known as Santeria; life-sized posters of Cubans coupled with interview excerpts, and much more. 

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As for the natural part of the natural history museum’s focus, Cuba is actually an archipelago of more than 4,000 islands and keys, making it one of the Caribbean’s most ecologically diverse countries. ¡CUBA!’s most impressive feature is its recreations of the island’s mysterious caves, expansive wetlands on the Zapata peninsula and dazzling coral reefs. These aren’t old-school dioramas; it feels like walking into “The Little Mermaid.” The now-extinct sloth is a vital example of why Cuba is working to protect its stunning biodiversity; the exhibit also features live animals and lifelike models of many species native to the country,

¡Cuba! covers a lot of territory, but it’s the life-sized posters and voices of contemporary Cubans that best capture its spirit and intent. “There is so much much speculation about this country, and people don’t really know anything about it,” reads an excerpt from Mirta Roque, a hairdresser in Havana. “If people were to come to Cuba, it would change their minds about the country and its people."

¡Cuba!
Through Aug. 13, 2017
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
Free with admission ($22)