Inside the Angela Marmont Centre as Natural History Museum unites public with UK nature

By Culture24 Staff Published: 19 May 2010

A photo of the inside of a scientific centre showing desks and a glass exterior

New venue: The Angela Marmont Centre, Natural History Museum, London

In a chamber at the back of the Natural History Museum's Angela Marmont Centre, rows of locked silver vaults keep thousands of weird and wonderful specimens in sealed drawers.

There are more than 4,000 types of beetles, 7,000 flies and 7,500 bees, wasps and ants in the UK, and that's before you encounter their tentacular furry cousins here, from crickets and grasshoppers to earwigs and cockroaches.

During the past few months, the Museum has ramped up efforts to increase public interest in the exquisite beauty of the UK's natural environment by encouraging a wider audience to take part in their existing identification process.

A photo of a collection of fossils and wildlife rareties including eggs and shells

Fossils and rare beauties inside the Centre

Peering at the glorious oddities filling the shelves elicits a sense of endless adventure, starting with a beefly.

"We get people saying it's got the face of a mosquito, which is fair enough because it's got a very similar looking mouth part," says Hannah Cornish, one of several stars of a Botany Department whose collective passion is as compelling as the creatures they specialise in.

"Someone said it had the legs of an insect and the body of a bat – that was another good one. My favourite was someone who said it looked like a cross between a bee, a golden mole and a narwhal, which is one of those whales with a unicorn horn.

"You get all of these crazy descriptions and you just instantly know what they are, because they come in again and again once they start leaving their burrows and flying around people's gardens."

A photo of a scientist examining pondlife under a microscope on a table

Pondlife goes under the microscope thanks to The Opal Water Survey

Sitting under the Darwin Centre's cocoon, the new Centre invites the public to bring in residents of their local gardens and ponds, where they can interrogate the professionals and use specialist equipment to take a closer look at them.

"One of the great things we're hoping to do with this place is to get those people who already have an interest to come here and develop that, but also to reach out to new audiences as well," explains Dr Fred Rumsey, who's a dab hand at settling queries after 15 years at the Museum.

"When people come in with things we can introduce them to the facilities we have here, but also use that brief contact time to build up their enthusiasm, with the hope that they’ll maintain an interest in wildlife."

Rumsey has always enjoyed "the public aspect of things", using synoptic examples – subsections of the larger collection aimed at drawing the public in through well-known specimens – to entice people.

A photo of a curly seafish

The public will be able to enjoy some of the more unusual findings within the vaults

"It gives them a chance to get much more hands-on and use better equipment than they'll have had at school or at home," he says.

"The fascination of these things is only really apparent when you see them under high power microscopes. We're lucky we've got the library of the London Natural History Society here as well, which is an amazing resource."

The Centre is home to Opal, a national campaign giving children tips on how to explore their local pond through simple chemical tests and nature spotting. Launched last Wednesday, it has distributed 40,000 survey guides, including a scoring system for invertebrate sightings.

"We're involved with lots of independent natural history groups, but until now if they've wanted to visit they had to contact the museum," says the project's Lucy Carter.

A photo of a red and yellow coloured starfish

A Purple Sun Star from the collection

"Now it's a lot more open, it creates that link and dialogue between us much more. It's nice that there is a point for UK biodiversity as well, because you look around the museum and see tigers and dinosaurs and whales, but most people's main experience of wildlife is when they're in their garden walking around.

"We're trying to remind people that actually it is really fun looking at these things, so they don’t just think 'everything in Britain's boring, I want to go to a tropical rainforest' or something."

A survey by the Museum this week suggested the need for the development, finding a public unable to tell frogs from toads, identify a blue tit, recognise a sycamore tree or name an ammonite, Britain’s most common fossil.

"Bringing in an enquiry is the first step to being engaged with UK wildlife," argues Carter, whose scheme began when Londoners monitored their own air pollution and sent the results to co-organisers University College London.

"It's a unique link between the public and really high-level science establishments like the Museum and the universities. It's about that progression from having a general interest to developing things a bit further."

A photo of the skull and antlers of a deer-like creature

The Centre celebrates UK wildlife in the International Year of Biodiversity

For Rumsey, it could lead to a nation of rival experts. "Some people are really fixed in their minds," he says. "They say 'oh, I’m sure this is really rare,'" and you tell them 'I don't think it is'.

"Then you get 'oh no no, I’m going to send you another 15 pictures which prove it is, I've got someone else who says it must be.' All you can do is prepare your case as well as possible."

His colleagues in entomology witness "quite a few" bizarre episodes. "We do find there are people who have fears and phobias – some of them are quite understandable," he sympathises.

"You have to learn to deal with some of the more colourful characters who might turn up. You have to tell them 'I really think you ought to go and see your doctor. If your GP says you don't have eight-foot lizards erupting from your scalp then I'd trust them.'

"It's trying to give them as much time and attention as you can without affecting other people who might want advice. But it can be very difficult to end a conversation sometimes."

Go inside the new Centre with our exclusive videos below...

Hannah Cornish shows us some winged wonders:

Dr Fred Rumsey introduces a bee orchid which shows climate change:

Lucy Carter explains how children can evaluate ponds:

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: