INTERVIEW: The Nature Table

This article appears in Wild London magazine, summer 2010 issue.

The Cocoon (c) Natural History Museum

Gill Stevens sees her office as a nature table, like the one you likely had at primary school, where people create collaborative displays of intriguing finds.  Walking past the London Natural History Society’s impressive library and into a dimly lit storage space, I’m faced with endless rows of high tech cabinets and a strong smell of moth balls.  Wrapped in a concrete cocoon, and housing 17 million entomology and 3 million botany specimens in 3.3km of cabinets, this surely is a nature lover’s dream work place.

On the lower ground floor of the swish new Darwin Centre, the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity is a first for the Natural History Museum and sees the venerable institution realigning itself to give its work on British species more prominence.  With its international reputation and high public profile, the museum is in a unique position to shout about biodiversity closer to home.

Gill Stevens heads up the team of expert scientists that run this sparkling new UK centric resource centre, which aims to excite and support people’s interest in nature.  Anyone and everyone can access the specimens, microscopes and books.  Experts and amateurs alike work with the centre to identify plants, animals and insects they have found.  Wandering round the open plan office, I see Gill’s colleagues’ desks disappearing beneath stacks of specimens, bits of rock and various maps.

A northerner, Gill loved flowers as a child and decided upon botany when she went to university.  “I love remote places and never thought I’d live in London but being here allows me to work at the Natural History Museum.  When I came here for my first interview in 1991 I was too excited to be nervous.  My first office was in one of the towers at the front of the main building.  At the end of the working day I’d come down a narrow set of stairs and emerge by the ancient sequoia.  That view of the cathedral-like main hall never failed to raise my spirits, even after a bad day.”

Gill has been unable to resist London and the Natural History Museum’s charms and has realised that you don’t need to be somewhere remote to appreciate the natural world, you just have to look out for it.  Sometimes it looks out for you.  Last week she found a stag beetle on the doorstep of her Wimbledon home.

Gill also helps to run OPAL, an ambitious Open Air Laboratory project that’s that’s all about transforming people who’ve become disconnected with the natural world into citizen scientists, capable of conducting wildlife surveys and collecting invaluable data. They’re particularly targeting urban areas, inviting schools, old people’s homes and even prisons to get involved.  A recent ‘Bioblitz’ of Alexandra Palace Park, run with London Wildlife Trust and the BBC, saw thousands of people out surveying.

“Showing people the stag beetle we found on the Bioblitz was fantastic, suddenly they were full of questions.  When you have face to face contact with someone you can make a real difference, you can open their eyes.  You can reveal that that white blob of gum on the pavement or that smear of yellow paint on a tree trunk is in fact lichen, a living thing.”

For Gill the term ‘biodiversity’ can be an awkward one, it has its uses within certain circles but she prefers to simply talk about nature.  “Nature is a word that inspires people.  I work in a nature centre and I’m creating a nature table.  We want to make nature more prominent in the museum.”

Darwin Centre (c) Torben Eskerod, Natural History Museum

The design of the Darwin Centre is all about bringing people face to face with science. But what’s it like working in a fish bowl where you are on display like a museum exhibit?  “The viewing areas are quite small, only part of our work space is on display.  Sometimes we forget and people get to witness our animated photocopier chats. I think it’s wrong to show a manufactured view of science, we shouldn’t orchestrate what’s going on behind the glass.  Science isn’t standing around in a white coat with a light bulb flashing above your head.  Eureka moments are rare.”

What does Gill think about the focus on bad news stories when it comes to the natural world, the obsession with crisis and loss?  “Getting people to appreciate nature through bad news is not a good idea.  The best thing is to encourage appreciation and make nature relevant.  People won’t understand why bad news is important if they don’t appreciate nature in the first place.”

Gill imagines the world as a complicated jigsaw, with nature as one of the crucial pieces.  If pieces go missing the picture is incomplete.  “People have the ability to have the most impact on the world”, she says, “and that makes us the planet’s worst enemy and its best hope.”

ABOUT DR GILL STEVENS

Gill is head of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, based in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum.  It’s a new resource centre for anyone with an interest in biodiversity and aims to play a key role in supporting the network of groups, partnerships and organisations that work in the natural history field.

Gill is also the deputy director of OPAL, a five year, nationwide project that’s encouraging people to explore and study their local environments.  

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