October 9, 2009 / 4:22 PM / 8 years ago

London's Darwin centre is nature in a cocoon

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Beetles, butterflies, plants and other insects from the top of the world to its tip star alongside the scientists who study them in the new Darwin Center at London's Natural History Museum.

Opened by Prince William last month, the eight-story white cocoon built on the back of the Victorian museum is a state-of-the-art research and collections facility used by more than 200 scientists, which holds 17 million insect and three million plant specimens.

The Darwin center -- named for 19th century "Origin of Species" author and British naturalist Charles Darwin -- is the most significant expansion of the museum since it moved to its current home at South Kensington in London in 1881.

"The Darwin Center shows the public more of our vital research and our internationally important collections," director Michael Dixon says on the museum's website.

"I hope the center will inspire people to think about the natural environment differently and in turn inspire them to take better care of our planet."

As you make your way through the cocoon you can learn how to launch an expedition to search for bugs or plants in a far off land, see and talk to live scientists at work preparing specimens in the lab behind glass walls or watch them out in the field on video.

Interactive light decks and hands-on exhibits bring the work of the naturalist to life before your very eyes, and you can bring the things you learn home with you.

The museum hands out NaturePlus cards to visitors, which have a bar code that allows you to create an online profile and download from exhibits that interest you for further exploration on your computer at home, linking you to blogs, research and discussions about your interests.

Once inside the cocoon, virtual "science guides" insect and plant experts Jan, Blanca, Mark and Max are projected life-sized on the wall to welcome you and guide you through the cocoon by reappearing at various places on the tour.

Amble past the 12-meter (yard) high interactive Climate Change Wall on the ground floor and touch the myriad displays to see lights, imagery and sounds illustrate how the museum's research on specimens dating back to Captain James Cook's 18th century voyages help scientists understand the impact of climate change.

In the Attenborough studio -- named for British naturalist David Attenborough whose television programs on the natural world have been watched by millions across the globe -- visitors can see Nature Live talks, meet scientists, catch short films on the natural world and handle live specimens.

For those interested in the plants and animals of Britain, the Angela Marmont Center for UK Biodiversity has been created as a hub for amateur naturalists, enthusiasts and other societies to study wildlife.

If you've found something unusual in your garden, bring it in for identification and advice, have a look through the centre's vast collection, book an appointment with an enquiries officer, get involved in a citizen science project or use the online and library resources to advance your own interests in the natural world.

Right now, British visitors can register online to join in current surveys like the earthworm and seaweed surveys using their NaturePlus cards.

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