Review: The Natural History Cocoon

by Jennifer Frazer on June 6, 2010

The Cocoon. Creative Commons raindog

Note: Clarification appended

It’s not fair to review an entity one has not experienced oneself. But since the new Darwin Centre of London’s formidable Natural History Museum is in, well, London, and I am demonstrably not, nor easily got there short of a $1000 plane ticket (and I don’t expect the NHM’s going to comp me, especially after this review), I am reduced to reviewing by proxy: through the New York Times review, and my impressions thereof.

If you are not familiar with the newly opened Cocoon at the Darwin Centre, take a mosey on over to the NYT and so so here. Or check out the Darwin Centre’s web site here. In short, the Darwin Centre is the Natural History Museum’s attempt to put the museum and what it does on display in a thoroughly modern way*. Out with Victoriana, in with touch screeniana.

My chief complaint about the Darwin Centre, and its cousins like this exhibit on biodiversity at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, is that they continue the trend of ascepticizing natural history and self-gratifyingly focusing on scientists rather than the real show — the ORGANISMS.

As the New York Times says,

The research facilities and scientists are part of the exhibition; they are glimpsed through windows, framed by explanations. They even become the subject of the show. The Cocoon’s displays are not really about botany and bugs; they are about the collection and study of botany and bugs. The exhibition is really about the museum itself — its methods and materials, its passions and enterprise. I don’t know of another science museum that does this. Along the way, of course, you learn about the natural world, but the real focus is on how that world is studied, and how the museum pursues that goal.

I don’t want to paint the good folk at the NHM in a negative light. I’m sure the designers of this exhibit spent countless hours thinking it through and poring over what way they could best reach the public. They want to teach evolution, the scientific method, and how modern taxonomy works; they want to bring science to life by showing scientists in action. They were given a goal and a budget, and they did their best. I just don’t agree with the goal.

Or rather, that putting this information on display is as important or as interesting and appealing to the public as some other goals. Would you rather go to this exhibit with your child, or one about slime molds or diatoms?  In short, what bothers me most about this exhibit, and the one in San Francisco, is what they seem to say about where biological natural history education is headed. All the effort they put into this exhibit could have been put into making the world’s first Hall of Protists, or Plant Evolution Gallery, or a Bacteria and Archaea Family Album. Instead, we get swipe cards, video guides, sorting games, and generalities — and a rather narrow view of nature. Butterflies, insects, and flowers are great, but what about all the other stuff?

Personally, I find the products much more fascinating than the process. There should be a place to showcase all of them too, and not just the ones with backbones, shells, or exoskeletons. Because learning about the products, while inherently fascinating, almost always leads to questions about the process. After all, Darwin himself started there. He spent five years looking at products while aboard the Beagle.

When I write hear about yeast and their “lifestyles”, or about diatoms, or about pine pollen, or slime molds, or the sex lives of red algae, or about alien pelagic peanut creatures, I’m only scratching the tiniest surface of all the fantastic forms, creatures, structures, and lifestyles that I learned in school. And believe me when I say that *I* only scratched the surface of what’s out there. There is so much more: the fantastically beautiful filaments called slime mold elaters, for example. Hornworts. Nematode-trapping fungi. Where baby ferns come from (not adult ferns). Anglerfish and sea angels. Ping pong tree sponges. Archaea. Radiolarians. Camel spiders. Slime nets. A blizzard of protists and algae and all their mind boggling forms. These things are this blog’s raison d’etre: I want to show and tell you about them not only because I can barely contain my own excitement, but because almost no one else is, at least not in a way the general public can understand.

But I can tell you who should be: natural history museums. A few are trying. I’m particularly fond of the new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian, which I reviewed here last fall, and which makes an admirable attempt to convey biodiversity through pictures, specimens, and an armada of world-class fossils. I also quite like the evolution and fossils exhibit called “Prehistoric Journey” here in Colorado at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. My memory is hazy, but I did visit the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York when it was new about 10 years ago, and I seem to recall it falls somewhere between the two extremes. And, I should note, the Natural History Museum in London itself has just begun what looks to be a fascinating new exhibit (again, I have no plane ticket) on Deep Sea Biodiversity.

I am also a *huge* fan of zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens because they do such a good job of spotlighting the organisms, but often their signage falls short: it’s vague, confusing, overly technical, overly simplistic, or boring. It doesn’t help you make connections between organisms to understand common structures, interesting adaptations, the general features of a given group, relatedness — or evolution. And lets face it: fungi, protists, bacteria, archaea, microbes, algae, lichens and kin always get the shaft. There is no where you can go to see and learn about them and their forms and variety. But there should be, and as it stands, the natural history museums are the best existing place.

But they too struggle for funding, so it frustrates me that they now seem to be prioritizing and funneling what they do have toward this new once-removed tack toward natural history. Biodiversity and natural history as monolithic concept and scientific endeavor: scattershot, sterile, and boring. Only the choir will find that engaging. The cocoon, at least it seems to me, peering into it from 5,000 miles hence, insulates people from the real stars of the show — messy, wild, weird, surprising, and natural. If we truly hope to convince the world that saving these organisms from climate change and resource depletion is important (and it is, not just for their sake, but for our sake: preserving wildlife keeps the climate stable for agriculture and our water clean for drinking), we should shove the organisms themselves out on stage. All you have to do is take a closer look at them, and with suitably skilled and creative interpreters you’ll find, I think, they sell themselves.

* The Centre was also created to specifically house the botany and entomology collections, not any other groups. I apologize for the omission, but I didn’t realize this was the case until an alert reader pointed it out.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Warren June 7, 2010 at 7:31 am

Hey. Write about Hornworts. :-) I want to know more about them.


Jo June 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

I have a similar complaint about a lot of nature programming on TV. The focus of the show seems have shifted more and more to be the biologist or host of the show, and it takes away from animals themselves, in some cases almost trivializing them.

I hope that more filmmakers make more use of time lapse photography, because this can bring to life astonishing animal (and plant) activities that are either too slow or too fast for us to get a good look at real time.

I’d love to take my 3 year old to see the Deep Sea Biodiversity exhibit too! She loves creatures of the deep on account of that episode of the LIFE series with Attenborough.

Jennifer Frazer June 8, 2010 at 10:44 am

Hornwort interest duly noted!

Alex June 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I agree with this post in full. Also, in a few short weeks, I’ll be at the NHM, and will try to remember to reply with some comments when I do.

One broad difference I’ve noticed between European natural history museums and American museums is that the former have more of a focus on education, and the latter more on showiness, technology, and laser light shows. All museums fall on a spectrum in this regard, but having been to many dozens across both continents, I’d say the generality holds.

In the US, in particular, the focus does often seem to be on researchers, new technology (used by scientists, or by the exhibit makers), and decreasingly on the things that drew these workers to museums in the first place: the critters. When it comes to natural history museums, it’s the organisms that interest us (or the minerals, or the artifacts, etc.), as you’ve noted above, but the more inquisitive among us also want a pithy explanation of the importance, relevance, and interesting facts about the subjects on display.

I just returned from Germany, where I visited half a dozen natural history museums. Each was interesting and spectacular in its own way, but I found myself exclusively drawn to the best specimens and reconstructions of those specimens, and little interested in any exhibit or museum with a button or a display – my two favorite museums of the trip had none: (though this museum does have a video screening room, cleverly concealed under many layers of rock, designed to represent the original beds that the fossils came from)

Murf June 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I can see your point about microbiology, but it is worth noting that the new Darwin Centre at the NHM was built to house and showcase the Botany and Entomology Departments and their work. There are other sections of the museum that cover Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology.

I have been to the cocoon several times and it is an awe-inspiring experience, despite what you may have read. There are lots of specimens on display alongside the educational interactive installations, but once you see how children respond to the interactives, you might think twice. Older adults may not like them much, but kids are entranced and actually spend time using them to learn about the particular topic… children are multi-media savvy and respond more to the on-screen offerings. From their point of view, why look at a stuffed meerkat behind glass when you can watch a short film about them in their natural habitat, scroll through a fact sheet and view a 3D rotating diagram of their internal organs and skeleton, all one one interactive touch screen. This is partly why less ‘real-life’ specimens are on display.

The other, more important reason why ‘real-life’ specimens are becoming less visible is that they are vulnerable to pests, wear and tear, humidity etc. The specimens in the Natural History Museum form the UK’s national collection and include a high number of ‘type’ species. These are a valuable resource, and given the current problems with loss of habitat and extinction, many cannot ever be replaced. The NHM has a responsibility to preserve and protect the national collection… this is difficult to do. The main purpose of the Cocoon is to safely store the Entomology and Botany collections for posterity, and you can view the vast storage facility within the Cocoon and see that it is a highly advanced, climate-controlled environment. I would consider preserving specimens for science to be of higher priority than showing them off to the public and risking irreparable damage to them by exposing them to sunlight etc.

It’s all about balance. Museums are not just places where people can go to see things, be they animals, vintage cars or neolithic pottery, they are bastions of research and the keepers of national treasures for future generations. Somewhere along the line I think you missed that very important point.

Jennifer Frazer June 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Thanks for your very thoughtful comment — much appreciated. I certainly do see your point about the museum’s other roles, and I agree it can’t be all about displaying fragile specimens that are better served by careful storage and conservation. When I suggested more exhibits should be about organisms, I didn’t mean to imply they would exclusively use museum specimens, just that they would be primarily *about* the organisms. The Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian uses many, many photographs and some video to very good effect, I think, in the context of a larger exhibit on the ocean and its study. There are a few bottled and otherwise preserved specimens, but they do not predominate.

But when exhibits are constructed, I just personally feel it would be a more worthwhile investment of resources to make them about the organisms themselves (in this case, perhaps, on plant or insect evolution or diversity, which could easily incorporate new models and interactive features — or even a few live plants or insects like the baby chicks hatching at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.) than to create exhibits about the process and the scientists who work at the museum. Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t find those exciting or as important, but that’s how I feel. I certainly respect that others may disagree. And as I mentioned, I know it isn’t fair to review an exhibit you haven’t visited. : ) I did read as much about it as I could though (and looked through the museum’s photos and materials online), but that’s no substitute for being there. I wish I could see it for myself.

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