Millions of plants and insects to emerge from eight-storey cocoon

Press release - 16 July 2009

Get ready to experience the Natural History Museum’s metamorphosis when the landmark new Darwin Centre opens to the public on 15 September 2009

The Natural History Museum will throw open the doors of the Darwin Centre to the public on 15 September 2009 and one of the highlights will be Cocoon, a journey deep into the 65-metre-long, eight-storey-high cocoon at the heart of the Darwin Centre. Here, you will discover some of the 20 million plants and insects protected by this enormous cocoon – from huge tarantulas to metre-high poisonous plants – and for the first time see into the hidden world of scientific research, where real Museum scientists work on cutting-edge research that could help protect the future of our planet.

Up to 2,500 people a day will travel through Cocoon to see some of the Darwin Centre’s 220 scientists in action working in high-tech laboratories, preparing thousands of real specimens or working amongst the 3.3km of cabinets that hold the millions of plants and insects. Through viewing decks, video and intercom, visitors will get an uninhibited snapshot into these once concealed spaces at the Museum.

Entrance to the Darwin Centre will be free. Advance booking for timed slots opens today for visitors wanting to be among the first to experience Cocoon by calling 020 7942 5725 or visiting the Museum. Online booking is coming soon at

Scientists in action
Encounters with real scientists through Cocoon will give you insight into how Museum scientists travel to discover and name new species, prepare specimens and organise collections that are being used to help fight malaria or react to climate change:

  • Decoding DNA – see into state-of-the art laboratories where scientists extract, process, sequence and analyse the DNA of plants and insects. One day you could be watching scientists working on mosquito material in their fight against malaria, and the next it could be bluebell DNA as scientists try to discover the origin of the British bluebell.
  • Preparing specimens – in a unique opportunity to experience the life of a working museum scientist, a microphone in the dedicated specimen sorting area lets you talk directly to scientists about the work taking place that day. They could be pressing plants collected from the streets of London or sorting through thousands of beetles fresh from the jungles of Central America.
  • Looking closer – looking out of the cocoon into the The Sackler Biodiversity Imaging Laboratory, you will see scientific staff working with herbscan machines to create high-quality images of herbarium sheets to share with colleagues around the globe. You will be able to take a close-up look at beautiful microscopic plants and weird and wonderful animals using interactive installations.

Diversity of life
The Natural History Museum has over 70 million plant, animal and mineral specimens in its collection. In the Darwin Centre alone, the cocoon will safeguard 17 million insect and three million plant specimens in world-class storage conditions. On your journey through Cocoon you will see more than 500 real insects and plants on display, including:

  • 124 specimens in the introductory area including an Atlas moth with a 16cm wingspan, the 15.5cm elephant beetle and tiny 3mm sandflies on microscope slides
  • a wall of 326 specimens over two floors, from a half-metre crayfish to a wingless termite
  • around 50 giant plants including the 1.2m hemlock water dropwort Oenanthe crocata
  • 20 historically important ‘iconic’ specimens, including the vegetable lamb of Tartary, insects collected by Darwin and Wallace and a bound herbarium volume containing plants gathered by the great collector Sir Hans Sloane

Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum, comments, ‘For many years, hundreds of Natural History Museum scientists have been working behind the scenes to better understand our planet. Now, through the Darwin Centre, not only will our visitors really understand for the first time why the work of our scientists is so important, they will actually be able to interact with real specimens and real scientists, which we hope will really bring the experience to life for them. With so many issues facing the planet at this time, we hope that visitors will go away with a real sense of awe and wonder at nature, a better understanding of why the work of the Natural History Museum is so relevant, now more than ever, and be inspired to share in our collective responsibility over the future of the planet.’

In addition to real specimens and scientists, Cocoon will also feature over 40 high-tech installations and hands-on interactive activities that introduce you to many other Museum scientists, their work and its relevance to us all.

Cocoon is supported by GlaxoSmithKline and Anglo American. As leaders in their fields they support the Darwin Centre’s mission to promote the development of knowledge, understanding and skills that are needed to make sound decisions about the science-related issues we face everyday.

If you want to keep up to date with Darwin Centre developments ahead of the opening on 15 September and find out what’s on at the Museum, sign up now to our monthly enewsletter at

Darwin Centre visitor information
Dates: open from 15 September 2009
Opening times: every day, 10.00–17.50 (last admission to Cocoon 17.00)
Admission: free, to book timed tickets for Cocoon call 020 7942 5725
Nearest tube: South Kensington


Notes for editors

  • The eight-storey, landmark building project completes the Darwin Centre, the most significant development at the Museum since it moved to South Kensington in 1881. The first phase, housing the Museum’s 22 million zoological specimens stored in alcohol, opened in September 2002.
  • GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and healthcare companies and is committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline’s community investment was £124 million (valued using average cost of goods) and targeted health and education programmes in almost 100 countries. GlaxoSmithKline is one of the largest charitable givers in the FTSE 100 and has a long history of supporting initiatives that encourages public engagement with science. For more information please visit:
  • Anglo American is a leading diversified mining group with a presence in 40 countries. Because of its significant social and environmental footprint, sustainable development is central to the way it plans and operates its businesses from exploration through to mine closure. It works with local communities to promote beneficial development outcomes and to minimise or offset any negative impact of its operations on the environment. Anglo American has had a long relationship with the Natural History Museum and has supported the Darwin Centre as part of its corporate commitment to protecting and preserving biodiversity. The second phase of the Darwin Centre is an innovative approach to engaging the public and allowing them to explore the natural world
  • Major supporters of the second phase of the Darwin Centre include the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Wellcome Trust, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, The Garfield Weston Foundation, The Cadogan Family, Professor Anthony and Mrs Angela Marmont, GlaxoSmithKline plc, The Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation, The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, The Wolfson Foundation and Anglo American plc.
  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to protect the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.