Despite never having had a facility for the natural sciences, they – and their practitioners – have always been a source of fascination for me. The reasons for this are varied, but one important part of it is an intense interest in the connections between things. Given this, I have been looking forward to visiting the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London since it opened.
The centrepiece of the Darwin Centre is the cocoon, a seven-storey white asymmetrical structure that resembles at once a misshapen egg, a jellybean, a larva and indeed a cocoon. The cocoon is probably a nicer name for it, but it could equally have been named the pod, given its simultaneous space-age and natural qualities. This delicate balancing of old and new, natural and synthetic, subjective and objective is key to the Darwin Centre experience.
The centre is entered through the main body of the Natural History Museum, at the end of a corridor coming off to the left of the old familiar dinosaur in the main entrance hall. The cocoon is itself housed within a large glass box tacked onto the side of the museum, so it is first glimpsed from outside, at ground level. You are then whisked up in an almost silent lift with only one button and arrive at a white room where you are introduced to the NaturePlus system, a bar-coded card which you can load up with information to access via the internet when you get home. Thus begins your initiation into the interactive world of the Darwin Centre, where fusty boundaries between inside and outside, private and public, home and work, nature and culture are constantly in danger of dissolving. Crossing a vertiginous glass walkway from which the splendour of the original museum building can be glimpsed in all its musty glory, you enter the cocoon, and begin to understand how this name refers not only to the outside but also the inside.
Inside, the décor is minimal, the walls remain rough-edged and unadorned except for occasional state-of-the-art projections. Entering at the top, the walls curve up over your head, providing a comforting sense of being, well, cocooned. In contrast to the walls’ plainness, the displays, which mostly sit in the middle of the space rather than lining the sides, are beautiful and delicate, with specimens arranged as elegantly as the finest wallpaper. Having entered, you work your way down along a descending zig-zagging ramped walkway, reminding me of a below-ground cross-section diagram from my schooldays. Since you do not pass through doors or walls once inside the cocoon, visitors do not actually move through rooms in the conventional sense, but instead from one area to another. This is in contrast not only to the entomologist’s obsession with pinning things in place – whether with pins, glue or names – but also to the separation, albeit transparent, between the visitors’ world and the scientists’, which I will come onto in a moment.
The first exhibit you meet in the cocoon is a projection introducing your four ‘guides’, four real scientists who really work in the centre, as curators. As well as this short film there is an interactive display behind it where you touch an object that represents each guide’s speciality to learn more about them and why they decided to work as natural historians. As you continue to explore the cocoon yourself, they reassure you, they will pop up in later displays as familiar faces and, who knows, you might even see them in the laboratories and offices that surround the cocoon! For such a hands-on place, these guides are surprisingly hands-off. Perhaps out of a natural curmudgeonliness, I wondered why we needed these guides, why these particular people had been chosen and what they represented about the Darwin Centre’s story for the public.
As I have suggested, feeling, as my companion Alice put it, ‘part of it all’ is the name of the game in the Darwin Centre. While the rest of the museum on the dank, rainy Saturday we visited was packed with families who had queued to get in, the Darwin Centre was a relatively quiet haven for adults. It is in fact extremely child-friendly, though its design is pitched at adults as well, recognising that they also enjoy interactivity and appreciate information being delivered in a fun way rather than simply read off interpretation boards. From what little I know from my previous experience of working in a wildlife centre in Scotland, I am aware that the Natural History Museum, in its relentless pursuit of interactivity, is at the cutting edge of current curation practice, so their efforts– though they are presumably better funded than the kind of provincial centres I am familiar with – fit within wider currents of thought. Yet still, I wondered, why is interactivity so important and valuable in contemporary curating, and what does that say about our attitudes to knowledge, science, history and leisure?
And, what exactly, are visitors being invited to be part of? One of the major innovations of the Darwin Centre is that, along with the exhibits, visitors can see, through two glass walls, into the working spaces of the museum’s research staff. This is admirably interactive and even democratic, but I wonder what effects it will have in the medium- to long-term on the work these scientists do, their roles and their relationships to museum visitors and the public more generally.
Science has always had a public role and the fact that it is scientific – as opposed to, say, sociological or philosophical – discoveries, theories and innovations that regularly get reported in the press is testament to the power of natural science in the Western public imagination. What is different about this, though, is not so much that science is being offered for lay visitors to see, but that it is the scientists themselves on display. Ostensibly, this is an exercise in seeing science as it happens, with an implication that visitors will witness not only the painstaking efforts of the museum staff, but also that they might just witness a Eureka moment for themselves. The focus, therefore, is on the everyday labour of science and this is reinforced by various interactive displays that aim to give an idea of what it is like to take part in the work, from planning field expeditions to techniques for storing and displaying specimens. (It seems likely that one side-effect of a visit might also be recruitment, and one of the four original guides mentions a trip to the Natural History Museum as a child as what sparked her interest in zoology.) Nonetheless, there is a strong implication that it is not so much the work as the workers that are on display.
One clue to the scientists’ feelings on this matter is a sign printed on a piece of A4 paper stuck to the inside of one of the lab’s walls: ‘We do not mind being photographed but please can you turn off the flash as this is distracting. Thank you’. This polite note has a whiff of submission about it that made me feel quite uncomfortable about my role in this unfolding drama: are the zoologists now the zoo animals, the entomologists and botanists the specimens? Or are they just celebrities, the ‘public face’ of contemporary natural history research? It is significant and a little poignant that this note refers to photography, with the implication that the flash may not only distract them from their work but temporarily blind them; pinned down to their labs benches they and the success of their work are at the mercy of the visitors and their cameras. Are we then their ignorant but powerful panopticon jailers or their voyeuristic paparazzi pursuers? Or indeed, perhaps the circle has turned even further, and it is we visitors who are the naturalists capturing the scientists in their natural habitat?
This transgressive state of affairs is reinforced further by the architecture of the cocoon, which, as mentioned, itself sits within a glass box. So, just as you becoming aware of the fact that there is a shifting power dynamic between you and the scientists you are watching, you realise that, after all, you are in a similar position to them, just another small, sprawling creature squashed onto the microscope slide. Even the building is interactive!
Towards the end of the tour, there is a diagram of where you are and have just been, but also where you cannot go, the lower floors. These strictly climate-controlled and inaccessible catacombs are the true home of the specimens you have been hearing so much about. Suddenly I realised something that had been nagging at me since arriving. Having read about the centre before visiting, I was expecting to see an impressive modern building and a peep-show into the world of the museum scientists, but my vision was also of shelves of Victorian specimens, a macabre sweet-shop world of pickled lizards, pinned butterflies, beetles stopped in their tracks and flowers pressed between pages. The displays in the centre do include some specimens, but they are few and their purpose seems to be more to illustrate the principles behind taxonomy than to give a sense of the mind-boggling diversity of the natural world that inspired Darwin. By one exhibit on taxonomy, I overheard a young boy ask for an explanation, to which his father replied confidently, if somewhat ambiguously, ‘it’s about sorting things out’.
I did find my trip to the Darwin Centre fascinating. I felt I learnt an incredible – and unexpected – amount about the status and value of the natural sciences in my cultural milieu, but I did not have my eyes opened to the majesty of Nature. I learnt almost nothing about Darwin (most of what I did learn about him was imparted by Alice (who studied natural sciences at Cambridge herself), who is coincidentally reading On the Origin of Species at the moment. To compound this, because we visited on a Saturday, we did not actually see any scientists working (and it is something of a comfort to my socialist sensibilities to see that the museum have not required their research staff to start working weekends in order to satisfy the public appetite). Instead of being peopled by the friendly, knowledgeable professionals we were led to expect by the exhibits, when we came to gaze out into the adjacent research building, we saw instead a series of yawning Marie Celeste-style laboratories with gloves hurriedly slapped down on workbenches and papers and books in unshuffled piles, bringing to my mind an image of scientists knocking off early and dashing to the pub rather than wrestling with the latest paradigm shift.
As we emerged from the cocoon, resplendent in our new knowledge and shining with fresh experience, we were subject to nature (plus) ourselves, as a sudden torrential downpour started battering the roof. A neat coda, all in all, to an experience that was stimulating in quite unexpected, and perhaps unintended, ways.