From today, visitors to the South Kensington museum have a whole new annexe to explore. The Darwin Centre Phase II is an architectural world away from Alfred Waterhouse's beautiful Victorian original, which looms over Cromwell Road with its turrets, towers and terracotta animals. The new wing takes the form of a giant cocoon suspended inside a glass box. It's light, white, airy and bright and a welcome respite from the hot and bothered jostling of the main halls.
The main purpose of the building is to increase storage space for the museum's millions of specimens. The collection is so vast that a curator recently found a whole box full of items collected by Charles Darwin himself, previously unknown to museum staff. For all we know, the plans for Noah's Ark are tucked away in here somewhere. Coiled around this storage facility, a winding slope leads visitors on an educational journey through the sciences of zoology, botany and conservation.
As an architectural experience the centre is stunning. The cocoon is an ingenious and apt space in which to examine the fauna and flora of the museum's holdings. In places, you can watch scientists going about their business in the museum's laboratories and even ask direct questions. (Try: What happens if you spill acid on yourself and have to strip off all your clothes in the emergency shower while we watch?) The details, too, are fascinating, such as the way the wiring and plumbing have been left exposed so as to more quickly spot and catch any potential specimen-nibbling pests.
As for the content of the centre, well, it's hit and miss. Pete Watts argues that there's just not enough 'stuff' to look at. To some extent, this is true. You'll certainly not find any cabinets of curiosities or random collections of stuffed vertebrates. Instead, it's interactive electronic exhibits all the way. Many adults claim to hate this stuff, but if you take the time to watch the videos or play with the consoles you can learn a thing or two about the natural world, its preservation and study.
At the end of the day, the new centre is better thought of as a multi-purpose facility for storage, scientific inquiry, education, events hire and all the other things the more cramped parts of the NHM cannot be readily used for. To compare it with more traditional areas of the museum is like comparing apples with stuffed dodos.
Image by M@