The Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum is now open. It is home to the museum's scientists and its dried, bottled and otherwise preserved collections of specimens. The recently completed 'cocoon' is an eight-storey-high sprayed-concrete storage space. The path to it (for the moment at least) is by way of the dark galleries with hardwood drawers and display cases of Waterhouse's main museum building. You pass under the white bulge of the cocoon, and find yourself standing beside the towering glass wall that encloses it. The dramatic transition from one style of building to another seems to carry a message about one kind of biological science replacing another. A feature is made of internal windows that let you look into working laboratories. They were impressive but empty on the morning I was there. What you see - the machinery that has mechanised DNA sequencing, the microscopes and the computers - fits so nicely with the elegant modernism of the building, designed by the Danish firm C.F. Møller Architects, that the ensemble suggests a work of art: a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet, say. But that emptiness was doubtless an accident of timing. The theme throughout is activity. There are new tools and techniques, and the attitude to the public is pressing in its openness.
LRB 8 October 2009 | PDF Download