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LONDON — There is something daring, almost provocative, about the Cocoon. This eight-story-high egg-shaped structure, which contains major new exhibition space along with scientific-research facilities, is housed in an enormous glass-and-steel box. It is annexed to the Natural History Museum here as if it were a gigantic specimen brought back by 21st-century heirs to the collectors, entomologists and zoologists who created that great institution.
But Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1881 Romanesque cathedral of a museum — which rivals its collections as an attraction with its vaulted entrance hall, ornamented pillars, ornate towers, elaborate murals and terra-cotta evocations of the animal kingdom — can almost seem dwarfed by this newly built chrysalis, particularly if you imagine the wing span of the creature that would emerge if the Cocoon were made of silk rather than plaster-coated sprayed concrete.
This might be a sign of the sly wit of the Danish firm C. F. Moller Architects, which designed this part of the museum’s Darwin Center. It opened last fall to much acclaim and seems to straddle two worlds: the new building’s apparent concern with geometric abstraction, light and shape also can give rise to King Kongish fantasies.
But spend some time in this £78 million (roughly $120 million) annex, and the wit becomes subtler, for the Cocoon, the center’s prime exhibition area, is the most important transformation of the Natural History Museum in more than a century. It even seems to define a new approach to science museums.