Natural History Museum takes evolutionary leap with new £78 million Darwin Centre

By Mark Sheerin | 11 September 2009
A picture of an enormous white cocoon against a glass building

The £78 million Darwin Centre (above) © Natural History Museum, Torben Eskerod

Preview: Darwin Centre, Natural History Museum, London, opens September 15 2009

Museums will soon make an evolutionary leap. On Tuesday the Darwin Centre opens at the Natural History Museum, and everything you know about the visiting experience could be disproved.

In the past, like most institutions, the NHM carried out its scientific work behind closed doors. But the new centre brings visitors face-to-face with curators and offers unparalleled access to the Museum's vast collection of plant and insect specimens.

Some 20 million of these are now housed in a giant eight-storey, sprayed concrete cocoon. Containing 3.3 kilometres of temperature-controlled filing cabinet, the structure billows out into a striking glass atrium. It makes a bold statement about 21st century science alongside the Museum's landmark Victorian facade.

A photo of the outside of a tall white curved building

A concrete cocoon houses millions of specimens. © Natural History Museum, Torben Eskerod

Much of the wall space comes alive with interactive displays on matters such as field work, taxonomy and DNA. There are touch-sensitive benches which put you in your very own sci-fi movie and, if you want to explore topics in more depth at home, a free Nature Plus card lets you swipe the data for retrieval on the museum's website.

The Centre also houses 1,040 square metres of laboratory space, some of which can be seen from windows in public areas of the cocoon. An intercom even lets you disturb the staff, but during my visit a friendly entomologist was only too happy to explain that she was cataloging bee flies.

A picture of a square glass building with plantation in the foreground

© Natural History Museum, Torben Eskerod

Darwin himself would have relished this level of public engagement. "In Victorian times, when Darwin was around, everyone was interested in natural history," says Head of Entomology Malcolm Scoble. "When he wrote his book it was read by a great many people, not just scientists."

"Darwin was a great communicator as well as a great scientist," points out Aisla Barry, Head of Interactive Media, demonstrating the Climate Change Wall, a multi-paneled touchscreen in the atrium which highlights some of the threats to our planet along with related work being done at the museum.

A picture of a white tower inside a building

© Natural History Museum, Torben Eskerod

Another great communicator, wildlife presenter David Attenborough, gives his name to a high-tech studio where the public can attend free talks on topics like biodiversity and evolution. These offer the chance to meet leading scientists and witness wonders including Martian meteorites and fluorescent scorpions.

The final new attraction is the Angela Marmont Centre, where amateur naturalists can bring their own finds and ask questions from a dedicated team of specialists.

"The Darwin Centre will be a great recruitment tool for future scientists," predicts Max Barclay, Curator of Beetles. It's true – the only thing missing is a fully interactive job application simulator.

Find out more at the Darwin Centre online.

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