The value of historical interpretation: Getting to know the City of Knowledge from a Panamanian perspective
To walk in the City of Knowledge campus is to witnesses firsthand how its 120 hectares have been transformed. Today, there are classrooms where yesterday there had been barracks: humanism, science and culture have replaced military weapons and in a period of just 20 years, this former military base has become a model of sustainable development that houses laboratories, schools, innovative companies, a humanitarian hub, sports facilities, commercial and green areas, as well as other communal spaces, all within a historic site that safeguards memories.
Though each building on campus tells a story, but there is a one place where the historical, architectural and landscaping heritage of the City of Knowledge converge: its Interpretative Center a beautiful building and a fantastic representation of the former canal-zone architecture, designed by architect Samuel Hitt (who finished the Canal Administration building). The building in itself is an attraction for visitors, but it also offers visitors a permanent exhibition telling the story Clayton’s historical significance and also narrating the City of Knowledge Project’s history.
According to the Interpretative Center’s Administrator, Manuel Rivera, interpretative centers are designed to educate and raise awareness about a site with historical value, as well about the efforts made to safeguard it, rehabilitate it and adapt it to new uses. Rivera adds that through the center value is placed not only on the architectural heritage and history of the City of Knowledge, but “that [it] also tells a story that has not ended yet, a living history that is still happening: for example, here we carry out activities such as small conferences, talks, documentary screenings and thematic cycles – all of which have to do with the preservation, rescue and enhancement of patrimonial assets “. Rivera points out that it makes sense to carry out this type of initiative at the Interpretative Center, since it’s an ideal space to enhance our historical memory.
The building’s restoration and adaptation of the building, which today houses the Interpretative Center, was made with particular sensitivity to its historical legacy: erected in 1922 as the residence of the commander of the Clayton base, the building was rehabilitated by the City of Knowledge Foundation under the counseling of architectural historian Eduardo Tejeira Davis, taking care that the renovated interiors visibly show elements of the architecture of the time, which meant, for example, setting the living room and dining room of the house completely in the aesthetic style of a typical residence of 1920s’ Canal Zone.
Visitors have the opportunity to travel back in time for a while, and discover a hidden gem. Rivera explains that many visitors, including people who visit the campus regularly to exercise or to attend other events that take place there, are pleasantly surprised by the content they find at the Center and others feel that the museum house reminds them of a grandparent’s home or of the house in which they lived when they were children.
A perfect place to exchange narratives
The visitor may discover that, unlike other types of museum houses, the Interpretative Center goes beyond just plainly exhibiting information: what it seeks, rather, is to reveal its meaning, both obvious and hidden: “the meaning that it had at the beginning, as well the one that it has today “, explains Rivera. The Center also tells the story of the City of Knowledge project showing the transformation that has been taking place on its campus, as well as the criteria that inspired it and the projects that happen here.
The City of Knowledge has an important heritage of urban, architectural and historical nature, and in that sense, the center plays a very important role because it presents it in a comprehensible way to its visiting public. Rivera argues that learning about the links between the Clayton site and Panama’s history is worthwhile because it helps “preserve and protect irreplaceable heritage assets which, if lost, would represent a huge gap in understanding a special period in our history: the one related to the military presence of the United States in Panama.”
In other words, visitors have the chance to decode themselves current reality on the one hand, and on the other, the site’s past, which becomes a very powerful tool. Rivera believes that. since to many Panamanians the old Canal Zone was a difficult place to access, the Interpretative Center offers the opportunity to discover a story that many did not know happened, but above all, “it gives you enough clues to be able to make understandable a fairly recent historical heritage, that is not necessarily known”. “People who come here usually bring a story of their own, but often they take another one that is triggered from their discovery of the site or simply by seeing an image or photo that makes them remember some personal experience.”
Finally, the Interpretative Center serves as a starting point to discover the rest of the City of Knowledge, because it is close to the campus’ cultural, sporting and leisure offerings: “at the Center, we find a narrative from the Panamanian point of view, which is not easy to find in other places or museums. But on the other hand, when you leave here, you find yourself immersed in the same campus whose history you just went through; you will no longer see it with the same eyes, but from a different perspective. You can assess what happened here, how the place has changed, and most importantly: you live differently now, understanding that we are active agents in the narrative that, from here onwards, continues to be written for Panama and the world, “says Rivera.
The Interpretative Center is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:40 p.m., the place has a capacity for 30 people simultaneously and its permanent exhibition is designed for a public of over 16 years old.