A classic moving with the times

Victorian in style and vast in size, the Natural History Museum in London could make some people want to give it a miss. That would be a mistake … At the entrance, under a grandiose vaulted ceiling, children skip around a diplodocus reminding you that here you can touch, explore and find out more in a relaxed atmosphere — that takes nothing away from the quality of the knowledge on show. There are also 300 researchers working at the Museum and more than 70 million objects are collected and distributed between the botanical, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology collections.

Child with a magnifying glass. Child with a magnifying glass.
A cathedral hall…full of noise and life. A cathedral hall…full of noise and life.
Lesson: a researcher presents a fossil. Lesson: a researcher presents a fossil.

London, like many European cities, harbours a veritable museum. A natural history museum which dates from the 19th century, and which houses collections, accommodates researchers and is responsible for managing a wealth of items and knowledge. However, like a number of museums, this London museum — particularly with the dynamic effect of the science centres — has had a rethink about the way its treasures are presented to various sections of the public (schools, families, people interested in the debate about science and society, etc.).

Presentation and simulation

Apart from the mineral gallery ¬— a Victorian-style display with an outmoded charm — the various rooms benefit from a carefully designed style of presentation. This is demonstrated by the collection of dinosaur fossils in the Blue zone. In addition to the sight of these animals, which have been extinct for millions of years, impressive in itself, a set of walkways allows visitors to walk amongst the bones and examine at close hand how these giant reptiles have been reconstructed. The star of the show is the tyrannosaurus, an enormous life-size robot which roars and moves, fascinating young and old alike. A gadget? Absolutely not. There is no reason why learning should be boring, comments Sarah Hone, a member of the Museum’s educational team. ‘We need to play, otherwise we don’t remember anything,’ confirms a child whilst another delightedly announces, ‘because here you can touch everything.’

Anyone wanting more information on the subject can access the museum website once they get home, to answer the question: ‘What dinosaur are you?’ and can then go on to find out much more about it. In the ‘Kids only’ area, they can play interactive games suited to their age group and gain access to educational links (particularly to BBC sites) concerning these questions.

A bit further on, the Red zone is devoted to Earth geophysics. The walls of the immense Earth Hall are painted with representations of the solar system and the constellations. An enormous sphere representing the Earth is suspended in the air and pierced by the escalator leading straight to the vulcanology exhibition hall. The air of mystery surrounding everything makes you want to find out more. How, for example, does a volcano suddenly spring into action? A model explains how a magma chamber works. What does an earthquake feel like? Visitors can ‘relive’ the Kobe earthquake (1995) as the ground movement recorded during this earthquake is reproduced.

Researchers with no secrets

Besides what it offers the general public, the museum is developing a policy aimed at schools, supported by an educational team which helps take care of the children from the moment they arrive. Teachers have a choice of various educational activities offered in a virtual catalogue. Puppet shows enable the smallest children to become acquainted with natural history. Actors lead the children into investigations through the various galleries of the museum. The character of Circadian Sam, for example, who never knows if it is day or night, but has a very good knowledge of all the animals, asks the children to help him find out which ones are asleep and which are awake. Mary Anning, a 19th century fossil hunter, tells them about her life and leads them to discover several scientific theories. The schoolchildren can also metamorphose into ‘dinosaur scientists’. Equipped with a laboratory coat and a notebook, they explore the museum to find out about the feeding habits, movements and habitats of these extinct giants.

For older children (12 to 14 years of age), an ‘Earth Sciences’ programme offers various types of activities. They can, for example, use a microscope to examine minerals and identify their formation cycle. If they have happened to find their own specimens while out on a walk, they can try to identify them using the museum collection database, through a set of questions and answers.

The more elaborate ‘How science works at the museum’ exhibition offers students the chance to become researchers, by conducting experiments to solve problems and then discussing industrial applications for the techniques used. An example of this is determining the geological age of a piece of clay using palaeontological techniques. The objective is to become familiar with the methodologies, in order to be able to put forward hypotheses and verify their soundness.

As for the museum scientists, they are not confined to their laboratories. Their work is varied — from the study of ecosystems and environmental pollution to the propagation of diseases transmitted by insects, such as malaria — and they do not hesitate to enter the arena to explain their procedures and deal with the children’s questions. For example, a palaeontologist will tell you how the analysis of a fossil’s teeth reveals what this creature ate during its life on earth, and an entomologist will reveal how insects can help solve a crime. By contrast, a visit by the public to the ‘Investigate Centre’ provides more information on the secrets of meteorites, snake skins and all sorts of bone. All these objects that the researchers are working on can be touched, handled and examined under the microscope and electronically identified. This gives young children a foretaste of this profession.