Our family just returned from a trip to the UK, which included five days in London. Despite the snow and ice, we had a wonderful time exploring the city. Lots of long walks, great meals (yes, you can find good and reasonably priced food in London!), and fabulous museums. Because they are publicly funded, many of the museums in the city are free – the Tate, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the Natural History Museum. Home to a vast life and earth science collection, the Natural History Museum, which opened its doors in 1881, has an impressive history that includes original notebooks, journals, manuscripts and specimen collections from notable scientific figures – including Charles Darwin.
In addition to its magnificent collections of fossils, dinosaur bones, taxidermied creatures, this venerable institution has a fabulous new wing called the Darwin Centre. I was very taken with the design of the Centre and its state-of-the art use of technology. The Centre is housed within a giant, eight-story cocoon. You begin your visit with a ride on a glass elevator to the 7th floor and work your way down a guided ramp. As you walk through the cocoon, you encounter displays of specimens, interactive exhibits, plant and insect collections, interspersed with video projections on the cocoon walls which explain and guide you through. Periodically, you come upon a window that allows you to peer into a working laboratory within the center of the cocoon. Literally, a window on the hidden world of scientific research, revealing the scientists at work. At different times, various scientists are there to answer your questions or explain the work that’s going on in the lab.
I was particularly taken with the climate change wall and the table-top animated touch screen exhibits which invite you to use your hands to drag images, make selections, move items around as you explore the given concept. There was a particularly effective one on DNA testing and a delightful exploration of miscroscopy where you work to identify a mystery specimen.
When you visit the cocoon you have the option to extend and enrich your experience by way of a program they call NaturePlus.
As you enter the cocoon, you pick up a free NaturePlus Card, with a unique bar code and number. At most of the exhibit stations, you can scan your card and collect highlights (particular images, favorite activities, or memorable facts) for later consumption. Back at home, you register on the Natural History Museum’s web site, create your own personalized web page with your NaturePlus Card number and all of your selected museum content becomes available to you. Such a clever way to deal with the problem of “information overload” we encounter at most museums – saving (and personalizing!) stuff for later.