Ted Dewan receives an object lesson in natural history
When a new museum gallery promises to be "hands-on" and "interactive", do you suspect vacuous button-pressing, light-flashing hyperactivity? Have you had enough "virtual"? Are you hungry for more "reality"?
Plenty of reality is on offer in London at the Natural History Museum. Investigate, in the Clore Education Centre, is a new "specimen experience" without bells, synthetic smells, or Peter Gabriel soundtrack. Rather than presenting scientific findings, Investigate plops children aged seven to 14 right into a "laboratory", with no specific agenda and no right answers. As if in response to accusations that the museum is degenerating into a theme park, this new gallery has a quiet and serious atmosphere which offers a chance to put the grey matter to work.
Investigate is in the basement of the life galleries (to the right as you enter the museum) - alongside the laboratories where scientists toil off-limits to the public. The approach is down an eerie blue stairway that leads to a sleek metal-panelled room, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: a space odyssey. Along one wall is a welcoming party of stuffed animals, bones, and minerals, and almost 100 translucent plastic slide-out trays, each with around six specimens from the full animalmineral vegetable range. They are particularly suited for those types of investigation that involve classifying and identifying, pattern-seeking, exploring or investigating models.
The specimens are there to be handled, and they are proper treasures, not rubbish from behind the garden shed - a crocodile skull with the skin still on, the iridescent wing of a tiny bird, a dried sea horse, ammonite fossils, a bird's nest with eggs still inside. The museum is prepared for regular loss and damage, and expects to have to maintain a steady supply of replacements. In an effort to draw attention away from names, and to prompt first-hand investigation, the specimens are unmarked.
In the centre of the gallery are four identical investigation stations, each able to accommodate well over a dozen children. Each station has a generous supply of magnifying glasses, binocular microscopes, and even a close-focusing, closed-circuit TV camera mounted on a flexible goose-neck stand. Measuring tools include sensitive digital scales and plenty of callipers. One exhibit you are unlikely to see in this gallery is an "out of order" sign.
Sixteen computers (no keyboards, just trackball and single oversize button) offer additional aids to exploration, such as a game in which you can play God ad design your own bird as well as an environment and diet for it, and find out if it is well enough endowed to survive these conditions. If not, you'll find out what went wrong, and you'll get suggestions for improving your evolutionary skills.
Rivet-bound, laminated "Q-card" packs sit casually atop each investigation station, upon which are questions, cues and suggestions relating to the individually numbered trays of specimens. You don't have to use them, but they encourage investigation (should any encouragement be needed), and in particular they help adults help children make their investigations more sophisticated. Teachers and parents might well leave with a far better understanding of how to encourage young minds to probe and hypothesise.
Three or four staff members - "explainers" - will always be on hand to help visitors. The staff I met, all former teachers, spoke enthusiastically about their plans for an ongoing display of current natural history discoveries, a regularly updated Investigate website and future events (some of them outdoors in the courtyard garden) involving live animals.
Investigate exemplifies elements of the national curriculum for science at key stages 2 and 3. It could also inspire work in English, maths or art. The museum advises a pre-visit classroom exercise to prepare for Investigate's approach and has produced a teacher's pack. My suggestion would be to take pupils into Investigate before seeing too much of the rest of the museum. The subtlety of this gallery's approach might go unappreciated if it were preceded by the Creepy Crawlies gallery, or BP's bombastic environmental exhibition on the ground floor. (Another planning tip: the school lunch room area is next door to Investigate.) I asked one boy, who was examining a fierce-looking bird's skull under the binocular microscope, if he was bothered by not knowing what bird the skull belonged to. His bemused stare made clear that a chance to check out this skull was far more exciting than knowing its formal identity. To him, this bird in the hand was worth a whole flock stuck behind a slab of Perspex.
For teachers' pack and details of school visits, contact the Natural History Museum education unit, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. Tel: 020 7942 5555 (www.nhm.ac.ukeducation). Summer term bookings are available. Other enquiries on 020 7942 5000. Investigate is open to the public Tuesday-Friday 2.30-5pm in term time, Monday-Friday 10.30am-5pm in holidays, Saturday 10.30-5pm and Sunday 11.30-5pm. The museum is open Monday-Saturday 10am-5.50pm, Sunday 11am-5.50pm. General admission pound;7.50 adults; children (ages 0-17) and over-60s free