The Natural History Museum is rightly most famous for it’s natural history collection, which comprises more than 70 million specimens amassed over the past 400 years. However, the museum is also an active research centre that covers biodiversity, disease, climate change and environmental science.
The striking Cocoon building at the Darwin Centre combines these two arms of the museum’s mission, housing over 200 working scientific experts and also a significant proportion of the museum’s specimens.
The specimens are in storerooms on the lower five floors in a controlled environment behind 4cm glass windows. And the scientists? They’re also on display behind glass windows, allowing guests to get a glimpse of science in action; for example, the preparation of specimens for cataloging or the extraction of DNA for sequencing.
Given my geeky tendencies, I particularly enjoyed the Decoding DNA area. This spot explained how and why scientists unravel DNA, and included a funky animation of PCR. One of the things I really liked about the whole Darwin Centre was that it explained the practicalities of what scientists do, and the clear explanation the rather complicated process of DNA sequencing was a great example.
The Decoding DNA area also had a cool game about sequencing the DNA of various disease carrying mosquitoes. You first had to catch enough mosquitoes to fill your quota of PCR tubes, then run them on your virtual electrophoresis gel to get a look at the variation among different types of mosquitoes. Once you knew what the different types were, you were given a list of their characteristics and asked how you think they should be controlled.
We suggested that our drug resistant Anopheles species of mosquito should be controlled with nets rather than drugs, and totally won the game. Curing malaria isn’t bad for a morning’s work!
The Cocoon has more than 40 high-tech installations and hands-on interactive activities like this. Some of my other favourites included a video about peer review and publishing research (predictable? me?!) and a collection of videos of scientists on field expeditions. More great info on the day to day lives of Britain’s scientists.
Dotted around the exhibition are various barcode scanners for the museum’s NaturePlus scheme. Each visitor is given a card with a unique barcode that they can scan at exhibits they find particularly interesting and save content to view later online.
I imagine this service is really helpful for school children who are working on a project about taxonomy, for example. The kids can find out the basics about classification of organisms on their trip to the museum, then do further research about Linnaeus and co when they get home.
Overall I think the Darwin Centre is a great resource for teaching the general public, especially kids, about what it means to be a scientist. Certainly when I was at school we learnt about DNA, photosynthesis, and so on, but were taught little about how this information was acquired bar the stories of big names like Darwin and Mendel. The great “how to do biology” exhibition in the Darwin Centre would have no doubt filled the gaps in my schoolgirl knowledge and given me a clear idea of what further studies in science might eventually lead to.