The museum announced yesterday that it is building the first phase of a pounds 100m Darwin Centre, which will rehouse the institution's entire collection of 68 million pickled specimens, as well as the researchers who work with them.
Previously, the museum followed the Victorian approach of rigidly separating areas seen by the public from those in which staff conducted research.
Neil Chalmers, the director of the Natural History Museum, said the Darwin Centre will be the most important single project in the 118-year history of the museum.
"The museum's scientific research is our best-kept secret. Now we want to throw open the doors, take visitors behind the scenes and let them see it for themselves," he said. "The Darwin Centre turns the museum inside out, connecting people with our science."
Darwin was chosen as the name of the new centre because he was an international giant of science, the father of natural history "and British to boot", Dr Chalmers said.
The new, eight-storey building is to be built in two phases over the next five years. It will be built behind the famous red-brick-and-terracotta main building designed by Alfred Waterhouse.
The first phase of the Darwin Centre, costing pounds 27m, has already begun and is due to open in 2002 when the public will be invited to view the museum's extensive zoology collection.
Phil Rainbow, keeper of the zoology department, said the 9,000 square metres of the first-phase building will be split into two halves, one kept as a cold store for the specimens and the other as laboratories.
It will house 12 million animal specimens, pickled in 65,000 gallons of alcohol and stored in 400,000 glass jars. They include samples brought back by Darwin himself on his epic journey around the world on board HMS Beagle.
"We have over 300 scientists based here at the museum who are engaged in practical, problem-solving science, especially in biodiversity," Dr Rainbow said. "The Darwin Centre will bring this important work out from behind the scenes for our visitors."
Scientists estimate they have named and categorised only 10 per cent of the 15 million species alive today and yet animals and plants are becoming extinct at a rate of one a minute, Dr Rainbow said. "It is probably the greatest rate of extinction ever."
It is believed that the museum's collection of 68 million specimens, which dates back to collections started in the 18th century, contains millions of animals - mostly insects - that are new to science.
Moving the collection promises to be a logistical nightmare. It will take 10,000 trolley loads to move just the zoology collection, Dr Rainbow said.
Only about 1 per cent of the museum's total collection of animals, plants and fossils are on display now. The Darwin Centre will allow the public to see 90 per cent of the collection, Dr Chalmers said.
Extensive computer links will enable people from around the world to visit the museum on the Internet and even to question researchers about their work. About pounds 20m of the total budget will be devoted to upgrading the museum's existing information technology.
Real-world visitors will be able to take guided tours of one of the richest and most important natural history collections in the world, which is still growing at a rate of 240,000 specimens a year.Reuse content