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Professor Phil Rainbow
"We want people to see what we do"
 real 28k

The BBC's Valerie Jones
"The collection dates back 250 years"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 17:05 GMT
Darwin species to go on display
Many treasures are simply locked away

Millions of preserved scientific specimens, some of which were collected by Charles Darwin, are to go on public display for the first time.

They will be the centrepiece of a major new exhibition and science building at the Natural History Museum in London.

The Darwin Centre is being built at a total cost of 100m. The first phase of the construction work is already underway and it is expected that the new complex will begin to accept visitors in the summer of 2002.

The centre will allow the museum to at last display the millions of hidden treasures that are currently kept out of sight in back rooms.

Extraordinary specimens, ranging from worms to alligators, are all preserved in alcohol in bottles, jars and tanks. They have been collected from around the world - some of them as long as 250 years ago.

There are about 12 million specimens in the museum
They include many of the specimens collected by Darwin himself during his sea voyages in the 19th Century, and helped form the ideas for his theory of evolution expounded in The Origin of Species.

Other specimens were collected by the explorer Captain Cook during his travels in the 18th Century. For the scientists, the specimens are vital reference points to check against possible new species. For the public, they are a fascinating glimpse of the variety of life on Earth. Director Dr Neil Chalmers said the collection was possibly one of the museum's "best-kept secrets".

"We have the most wonderful collection of animals and plants, but only a tiny fraction of them are on public display," he said.

Behind closed doors

One of the key features of the Darwin Centre will be its interactivity. Not only will the public be able to see the specimens on display, they will also be able to see first hand the cutting-edge scientific research they support.

"We are going to be able to take the visitor behind the scenes, to see what we are doing, to meet the scientists and we can explain what we are doing behind those doors marked private," said Professor Phil Rainbow, the museum's head of zoology.

There are over 300 scientists based at the museum. One of their main tasks is to identify and describe new species. But they are keen to show off how that knowledge can be used to good effect.

The collections support current scientific research
"We do a lot of work on parasites of humans and livestock around the world," said Professor Rainbow. "We work on mosquitoes that transmit malaria and black flies that transmit river blindness. In the UK, for example, we're involved in recording every whale stranded around the coast, building up a database that might help produce a solution to the problem."

At least 20m is being spent on a new information technology project that will give people access to the museum's collections database. This will be made available over the internet to all.

The Darwin Centre will be a modern design. The external facing will include terracotta towers and solar panelling. Architects believe this will blend well with the original Waterhouse building, which has become one of the most famous landmarks in London.
An artist's view of how the Darwin Centre will look

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