The Darwin Centre

20 September 2009

Interview with

Paul Bowers & Gavin Broad, Natural History Museum; Anna-Maria Indrio from CF Møller Architects

Kat - It's time to join Meera Senthilingam at the new Darwin Centre which opened at the Natural History Museum in London this week.  It's an 8-storey cocoon that costs 78 million pounds to build and will not only house the museum's insect and plant collections but also aims to give visitors insight into the working life of a scientist.  So Meera went along to find out just how the centre plans on getting us excited about science...

Meera -   This week, I'm at the newly opened Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London.  Now, its structure is quite incredible because it's a giant white cocoon sitting inside a large glass box next to the museum's famous Waterhouse building.  I'm inside this cocoon now and with me is Paul Bowers, the Public Offer Project Director here at the Natural History Museum.  So Paul, tell me what the Darwin Centre is all about...

Paul - TDarwin Centre Entrancehe Darwin Centre Phase 2 is the culmination of our, sort of, 10 to 15-year project of bringing science out into the public domain.  The new building creates world-class storage facilities for our collections - that's 17 million insects and 3 million flowering plants.  It creates research facilities for the 200 or so scientists that work on those in the Darwin Centre and for me, the most exciting part is to throw the doors open and make that all of that accessible to our public.  We have a journey around our spectacular cocoon where visitors will be able to see through windows, interact with interactive exhibits and talk to some of our scientists who are preparing specimens.  And then on the ground floor, we have the Attenborough Studio where we will be running a daily program of nature live events where the public and scientists can meet together and engage in dialogue about cutting edge research.

Meera -   Now you mentioned that it's all housed in a big cocoon and we're inside this cocoon now and it really is, you are just completely immersed with the science taking place here.

Paul -   Well the cocoon is a quite remarkable structure.  I mean it is symbolic for us of the scale and importance of our collections, but it's fulfilling a really functional job as well.  The collections need to be held in a dark controlled environment and the cocoon does that.  The cocoon is thermally insulating the collection spaces.  The other aspect that we can do in a cocoon is create all of these windows over laboratories, over microscopy areas and our specimen storage areas.  So the cocoon enables us to give people that sort of level of insight into the work that we do here.

Meera -   How is this benefiting scientists to be able to do their work with people looking at them?  Because there's someone behind us now, through that window, and I could just see them there working with samples.

Paul -   For us scientists, what's really great is the research facilities.  Having those research facilities created in such a way that they can discuss things with the public as they go through, is just a really exciting part.

Meera -   And what about members of the public?  How does that help them, to have these windows in to the life of a scientist?

Paul -   It's very unexpected.  Most people don't realize that we have this many scientists working at the Natural History Museum.  The other side of it is, science is a massive part of our lives.  So many issues of current importance in terms of climate change or biodiversity loss are really important issues facing all humans and we need to know more and understand more so that we can make good decisions about our future as individuals and through any political process.  So, it's really important for the museum to be able to show off how it's done and give people an insight to that scientific process.

Meera -   So you mentioned that visitors can just speak to the scientist as they're working with their specimens.  How does that actually happen?

Paul -   Part of the challenge for us is balancing up the different priorities of the building.  We have to keep the specimens behind glass because they are at risk from being eaten by museum beetles, but we want to make sure that these conversations can take place.  So what we've done is we've created an area, a little bit like a post office counter where there are microphones and speakers and there are our curators, working, preparing specimens that's working with big Victorian plant presses, pinning insects and preparing microscope slides.  The public can simply use the microphone and ask the scientists what they're up to, why are they are doing it, why it's important and so on.

Meera -   So one of the features of the Darwin Centre is to be able to talk to the scientists as they're doing their work.  So, I'm just looking through on the windows now and I can see Gavin Broad.  Now Gavin, what do you do here at the museum?

Gavin -   I'm a curator in the entomology department.  So I look after part of the collection of insects, particularly the parasitic wasps.

Meera -   And now, I'm actually disturbing you a bit at work now because you've got your microscope and various specimens in front of you.  What are do you doing here?

Gavin -   I'm looking at some South-American in wasps that have been collected recently in particularly Ecuador, Peru, and I'm labelling them up and trying to identify them as best as I can. Darwin Centre Labs

Meera -   Now the glass here is actually quite big and so, does it disturb you at all to know that visitors are looking at you or to be seen doing your work?

Gavin -   Well, it's not actually as distracting as I thought it would be because it's quite a dark view outside.  People just sort of walk past and you don't really notice them.  But it's a really positive thing, I think, to be able to explain what we do and our department has about 20 million specimens in it, specimens of pinned insects, and we can sort of show what goes into each of these specimens and we want people to appreciate that we're not just about dinosaurs and that we do a lot of research into the natural world.

Meera -   I must admit.  That was fun spying on scientist Gavin Broad doing his work and then also, being able to satisfy my curiosity about just what he was actually doing.  Now, what else is going on around here?

...

Now, having fully wandered around this cocoon and gone deeper and deeper into the depths, I have to admit I'm in awe.  So to find out more about what went into the design of what is now the tallest curved structure in Europe, I'm here with Anna Maria Indrio, one of the architects of CF Møller, the architects behind this design.  Now Anna Maria, looking around, this design seems like it would've been quite a challenge.

Anna Maria -   Well, it was a big challenge because in the competition, we were expecting to do an extension to a museum, a kind of exhibition building, but we discovered that the extension was made essentially of three elements:Darwin Centre Cocoon an archive which was enormous big, a scientist's working space and the public offer.

Meera -   How did you go about facing those challenges and coming up with this design?

Anna Maria -   Well, we discovered that the items we were going to exhibit was very small.  They were plants and insects.  So, how to communicate to the people the huge size and the importance of this collection?  So the idea of the cocoon like a treasure containing this precious collection was coming out of this.

Meera -  What do you think the main feature and best part of the design of this building is?

Anna Maria -   The transformation of history, because this is an old historic building which is very much introvert and built as an introvert building to a modern new extrovert building connecting outside, inside and history and space, that for me is so nice for people.

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