Darwin’s Living Laboratory with English Heritage


The garden at Down House is where Darwin, together with his family, used observation and meticulous experimentation to investigate some of nature’s biggest mysteries. Recent visitor research had shown that visitors to Down House are really interested in the garden and Darwin's practical experiments, so there was potential to grow the Down House audience base of families and schools. 

In Summer of 2021, English Heritage launched a new family friendly interpretation scheme in the gardens of Down House. However, they recognised that the interpretation boards and interactve posts, posed a challenge to their team; additional knowledge was needed to explain Darwin's approach and scientific findings and improved family-friendly engagement techniques. 

Nature Nurture's years of providing authentic high quality nature and heritage experiences for children and families, plus our history of building long-term collaboration with the conservation sector, places us at the heart of bridging the gap between ecology and contemporary audiences.

Our brief was to upskill their staff and volunteer team, to engage audiences in line with their two nationwide strategies: English Heritage at Play: Welcoming Families to Our Sites and The On-site Visitor Experience Strategy 2019- 2023. These strategies aim to bring history to life every day for everyone, be inclusive, current and to put the visitor at the heart. A major component of the new strategy is engagement training of staff and volunteers, whose passion for history and for sharing knowledge with visitors is seen as an asset which English Heritage is keen to harness.

Nature Nurture always pulls together a team, appropriate for the job in hand. This project was co-designed by our Director Natalie, along with soil scientist and interpretation expert Dr. Erica Bower and ecologist, environmental educator and BSc Zoology graduate of Bristol University, Tom Walmsley. Erica and Tom have strong track records of establishing programmes for family engagement and education programmes. 

English Heritage wanted staff and volunteers to feel empowered to deliver a high quality family visitor experience and needed us to deliver specific training to staff and volunteers on welcoming family and school groups and engaging them with the new interpretation. They had already invested a lot in their new interpretation boards around the garden, but although they recognised the extensive knowledge amongst the volunteers, there was confusion around the best use of interpretation and an understandable challenge in shifting the team to embrace a new approach.

We identified the challenges. Darwin’s ideas were complicated, and explaining them often involves knowing what was understood at the time and appreciating particular nuances of the natural world. Volunteers and visitor-facing staff who have a heritage-based training may lack confidence in telling science based stories. In addition, the garden is seasonal. Not all stories will be relevant all year round.

They also wanted us to train them enough to feel confident with engaging family and school groups with complex concepts arising from Darwin’s work (such as evolution and natural selection).

English Heritage wanted our training to implement the creation of a ‘hub’ in which we, along with the staff and volunteers can gather together a life science story that currently is not told in detail at Down House.

"Erica suggested framing our resources and training around the '6 Steps to being a Good Scientist'. To convey Darwin's scientific approach in an engaging way, was a key message: his methods are within our grasp; we can all be scientists in our own back gardens. We centred our approach on fun, curiosity and asking leading questions, rather than a top down didactic approach."

We used our 6 steps to being a good scientist model for each ‘station’, making it easy for presenters to remember and learn, and reinforcing the central theme for visitors: “Darwin was an amazing scientist. You can be a scientist too – it’s all about asking great questions!” This is intended to give the guides confidence – they don’t need to know the right answers, just to recognise and encourage questions, then ask ‘How could you design an experiment to test that?’

We created a user-friendly information pack for staff and volunteers, which included 6 Steps to being a good scientist, background material on the new interpretation and top tips for engaging families.

Lots of great fun! Very engaging and volunteers enjoyed immensely. Certainly given us a great foundation.

Anthony Rourke, Head Gardener


For us this consultation was all about a sensitive approach in every area: first listening to where the staff and volunteers were at, second researching the science available in the living laboratory and third investigating the ways in which to marry the complex layers of information to the skills needed to meet the new ambitious strategies of English Heritage for the site.

"Very helpful, I particularly liked the ideas that were simple and involving. Thank you." Susan Ryall, Down House Volunteer

"Very interesting. I will use a few points of interest in my tours, especially with children." Brian Stocks, Down House Volunteer

"Very enjoyable. Learned a lot. Thanks."  Martin, Down House Volunteer