Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inside the Cocoon

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

For the past year, we’ve been exploring how to present behind-the-scenes curatorial work to visitors – but there is one museum in the world that has committed to doing this in a big way – the Natural History Museum in London.

And so, on a recent expedition to visit relatives in the land of my birth, I finally visited a museum project that I’ve been promoting [I’m sure I’ve become quite a bore] – the new Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum.

I had been impressed by the first phase of the Darwin Centre – a kind of public atrium in their fluid collection storage and research building. But the next phase takes this concept to a new level.

I love what the Natural History Museum does. I think they exemplify how to ‘live your brand.’ Essentially, everything they do reinforces the message that they are a museum engaged in science and scientific issues that are important to the world today. A recent BBC reality television documentary series about the museum is aptly named ‘the Museum of Life’ [see links below].

The ‘Cocoon’ in its glass box.

And the Darwin Centre itself is the brand ‘writ large.’ Imagine a giant cocoon inside a glass box. ‘The Cocoon’ contains the museum’s botany and entomology collections – 30 million specimens! It has a thin outer layer. Visitors enter the structure at the top and travel gradually downward inside this outer layer – looking into the collections which are sealed in the core [the collections storage ‘specs’ are impressive: 3.5 kilometers of shelving and cabinets all contained at a constant 18C and 45%RH].

Inside the ‘Cocoon’.

The path downward is an interpretation journey – not of specific collections – but about the curatorial process. What are collections? How are they organized and stored? How are they used, what do scientists study and how do they go about it – and why should we care?

It’s not for everyone… it is quiet and thoughtful – a marked contrast to the mayhem in the dinosaur gallery close by. But I found the experience profoundly moving. For years, I’ve felt that the efforts we [museums in general] have made to explain what collections and curators do to be rather sad affairs. The window into the lab with empty worktables and microscopes say to me ‘this work is boring and everyone is out.’

At the Darwin Centre, the Natural History Museum is quite clearly very serious about revealing what they do and inviting visitors to share their scientific curiosity. The ‘Cocoon’ journey is beautifully paced. As you spiral down, bright pools of light tell you that another element of the story is about to be told. My favourite was the invitation to plan a trip into the field. A curator guides you as you interact with images projected onto a table – like your choice of clothes for the trip. You choose your destination [why did I choose Scotland rather than the Bahamas?], make travel arrangements, and pack your clothes and equipment. At the end of all your planning, the curator appears and admonishes you gently about what you missed.

I’m about to select my clothes for an expedition to Scotland.

The interpretive media are impressive. The Darwin Centre uses a lot of video. Four prominent staff scientists are featured and become your familiar hosts as you make the journey. There are views outside the ‘Cocoon’ into working research labs. They are impressive in the clinical technological way… but not particularly interesting. It’s the people and their work that captures one’s attention.

Views into static collection areas are animated by video projections.

One can argue about what works and what does not in the Darwin Centre, but what really impresses me most is the Natural History Museum’s determination to expose what they do behind the scenes and show its relevance to the world around them.

Tim Willis


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The Royal BC Museum is located in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada's west coast. We preserve BC's human and natural history and share it with the world. How do we do that? That's what this blog is about.

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