Natural History Museum calls in Pentagram and At Large

The Natural History Museum has turned to design consultancies At Large and Pentagram to help put the final touches to its Darwin Centre.

Unveiled earlier this week, The Cocoon will house plant and insect collections and show the visiting public scientists at work. It completes the second phase of a development – housing the museum’s 22 million zoological specimens – that opened in September 2002. The project is being hailed as the NHM’s most significant development since moving to London’s South Kensington in 1881.

The briefs for the new public spaces are thought to be worth around £6.5m. At Large was appointed to the museum’s roster in June 2006 and Pentagram in June this year. They won the contracts through an EU-wide framework.

At Large is working on The Explore Tour – the public offer – that will take visitors on a tour of scientists at work, a project that has so far taken two-and-a-half years.

Explaining the concept, At Large director Bob Baxter says, ‘The job has been about developing a story of how the collection is formed, used and housed. [The idea is] to bridge the gap between the scientist, the museum and the visitor.’

Taking the visitor past dry plants and pinned insects, The Explore Tour will introduce the collection before interactive elements are used. ‘What we’ve done is to unfold lighting design, audio-visual elements, interior design, graphic design, lighting, sound and wayfinding,’ says Baxter.

Pentagram, which became involved in The Cocoon development three months ago, is designing the David Attenborough Studio, a public lecturing space that features a horse shoe-shaped auditorium with glass-fibre seating, according to Pentagram managing director William Russell.

NHM project director Paul Bowers is keen to distance the project from any gimmickry. He claims 60 per cent of the museum’s most valuable insect and plant exhibits will be on display, where pioneering DNA-based work will be undertaken.

Some observers have suggested The Cocoon is not in keeping with the existing Alfred Waterhouse building or the ethics of the institution, but Bowers says, ‘The Victorians built something that was a bold statement of understanding in The Waterhouse building of 1881. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t fit in with 21st century research.’ Plans are now being formulated to implement an overhaul of the 19th century building. Bowers says, ‘We’re working on a range of considerations,’ while Baxter reveals that ‘We’re involved in some project planning’.

The Darwin Centre is due to be completed in 2009.

Darwin Revisited

• The second phase of the Darwin Centre will reveal the Natural History Museum’s world-class scientific research

• The Cocoon will hold 17 million entomology specimens and three million botany specimens in 3.3km of cabinets

• Financial supporters include the Heritage Lottery Fund (£20.5m), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (£10.7m) and The Wellcome Trust (£10m)

• The new Darwin Centre will have 16 000m2 of floor space

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