Tuesday, 15 September 2009

New Darwin Centre unveiled to the public

Planning a scientific expedition, identifying a mystery species and watching spiders getting it on were among the many interactive experiences on offer at the Natural History Museum’s new Darwin Centre, which opened to the public today.

Video: Inside the Cocoon

The new £78 million centre is home to the eight-storey Cocoon, which enables visitors to question scientists as they work by providing microphone links to the glass-fronted laboratories.

As well as the labs, the structure houses 20 million insect and plant specimens as well as a plethora of interactive activities. Just behind the gigantic building lies the Attenborough Studio, where daily Nature Live talks thrive on audience participation. The aim of these talks is to introduce audiences to some of the 250 scientists working at the Darwin Centre while engaging visitors directly with the exhibits.

Today, Jan Beccaloni, Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda at the museum, discussed with a packed studio the finer points of spider speed-dating.

After first showing us a jar of preserved spider specimens collected by Charles Darwin himself, she then delved into the art of spider romance.

“More often than not, the female is the larger of the sexes. The male needs to demonstrate that he isn’t dinner. He also need to show that he’s the correct species. So courtship is a game the males have to play really carefully.”

According to Beccaloni, one of the strategies the males of some species of spider employ to woo their potentially deadly lovers is giving presents.

“The male spider will catch a fly and wrap it in silk, and while the female is eating it, he can mate with her, and hopefully won’t be eaten too,” she explained. “The longer she feeds, the longer he can mate with her and the more eggs he can fertilise.”

But it turns out these male spiders aren't exactly the most chivalric kind - no satisfying encounter, no gift.

As Beccaloni said, “It was discovered that some males, if they are interrupted during mating, will take the gift back!” So much for romance.

After the talk, I went for my pre-booked entry to the Cocoon. Inside the dimly lit edifice were some fantastic touchscreen visual displays, including one which tested my ability to identify an unnamed flea-like species. Green-blue shifting images were projected on the walls and ceiling of the cave-like interior, creating glowing backdrops for the exhibitions.

And for those who'd like to revisit what they learnt at the museum, visitors can pick up a free NaturePlus card, which allows them to save content from selected exhibits to view later online by scanning the card’s barcode at the relevant points – handy for backing up your memory if information-overload takes hold.

Video and images taken by myself at the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre.

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