Journey to centre of earth puts a gloss on geology

Quakes and volcanic eruptions among Natural History Museum's new pounds 12m display
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It is science, but not as we know it. The new vision of the world unveiled at the Natural History Museum yesterday is a high-tech, high-gloss drama with the sound of ambient music.

The public will get their first glimpse of the first major National Lottery-funded project to be unveiled when the doors of the museum's new pounds 12m earth science galleries in London are thrown open on Saturday.

In the welcoming atrium, a giant escalator takes visitors through a massive revolving globe sculpture of beaten copper, iron and zinc in a "journey through the centre of the earth". Upstairs, the bold can experience a simulation of last year's Kobe earthquake in a replica of a Japanese supermarket. Another section tells the story of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

The new galleries are expected to attract an extra 2 million visitors a year to the museum. At the formal launch yesterday, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, said: "With the support of lottery funds, the latest technology has been brilliantly employed to give us a museum of the 21st century which will enhance the cultural heritage of the nation."

The project began after research showed that visitors thought the earth science galleries were uninviting and that pure geology was boring.

In a move to communicate what museum director Dr Neil Chalmers called "the drama and importance of earth science", the old geological museum, adjoining the Natural History Museum, was closed 18 months ago to prepare for the new exhibition. It has been designed to appeal particularly to non-specialists.

The lottery money, matching pounds 1m from the sponsors, the RTZ-CRA mining group, and other cash raised by the museum, means the project should be completed by 1998 instead of taking up to 10 years.

Dr Chalmers said: "For the first time in Britain, we will have a museum that is really going to make the earth sciences accessible to visitors. The duty of scientists today is to help people understand why the earth sciences are so important." Understanding them helped us gain materials from the Earth, such as oil, gas and building materials, in a responsible way, while many minerals and gems were simply beautiful in themselves, he said. They also helped to explain how landscapes were formed by the earth's internal processes.

The naturalist Sir David Attenborough said yesterday: "Perhaps scientists have taken for granted for too long that the excitement they feel for their subject is automatically felt by everybody. This restores the wonder of what has for too long been considered rather dull and dire stuff."

Roy Hawkey, head of education, said the museum wanted to stimulate interest. "It's a question of widening horizons rather than simply being a collection of the answers."

The demands of national curriculum science had been considered in drawing up the designs.

But he added: "Although we're predominantly a science-based institution, we're not neglecting the rest of the curriculum. We're keen to encourage people to look at the exhibitions from the point of view of aesthetics and history too."

The new galleries have been constructed using the latest environmentally friendly technology. Roger Breckon, of Klimaat engineers, said: "It's an exciting project. On the face of it you have a lovely exhibition and behind the scenes you've got the really modern building services technology backing it up."