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The setup of the Darwin-Dohrn Museum in Naples. More images on our related Instagram post. Credit: Rosario Balestrieri.

Tourists in Naples can add a new scientific destination to their itinerary. The Darwin-Dohrn Museum, that focusses on marine life and the history of its study, opened in December in the Villa Comunale, on the city’s waterfront. It is part of Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, one of Europe’s most important research centres on marine biology, and home to a historic aquarium. The museum is housed in the Casina del Boschetto, an abandoned architectural gem from the 1940s, restored for the purpose. “The Casina was vandalised and crumbling when we started the restoration work” says Roberto Danovaro, president of the Stazione Zoologica. “Now the museum stands as a further testimony to Anton Dohrn’s vision”.

Anton Dohrn was a German zoologist born in 1840, who championed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and contributed to it with his embryology research. He dreamt of founding science stations on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea to study its natural history and biology. In 1872 he founded the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, combining a scientific vision with entrepreneurial insights. He wanted the aquarium to both to raise funds for scientific research and popularize marine biology. He then started to rent the station’s laboratories, large library and collections of specimens to scholars who came to Naples. This way, he turned the Stazione into a vibrant, cultural, and financially sustainable scientific centre.

Dohrn had a close relationship with Charles Darwin. The museum, named after both scientists, displays their complete correspondance, and uses it to tell the story of how marine research conducted in Naples has contributed to the theory of evolution. It also hosts more than 10,000 specimens from 3,000 different species, including some that were seized from illegal trading, like turtle shells or corals.

The visit is organized along educational paths focussing on the origin of life in ancient seas, marine biodiversity, the role of the sea in the history of human civilization. “We are also promoting a hands-on approach to science, thanks to a didactical lab where visitors can explore microscopy” explains Claudia Gili, director of the Public Engagement and Marine Animal Conservation department of the Stazione Zoologica.

The museum’s concept is closely related to the scientific activites of the Stazione Zoologica. “We study life from the molecular level to the ecological scale, crossing all fields of biology, embryology, biotechnology, genetics, physiology and even behavioural science” says Danovaro. The institute also has monitoring centres in the gulf of Naples and on the island of Ischia, as well as research vessels, that perform marine measurements and provide data to the five research departments.

This interdisciplinary view is also reflected in the museum itineraries, says Gili. “We teach visitors about plastics, underwater noise pollution, and animal behaviour” she says. “We aim to educate about the climate crisis too, and especially raise awareness in kids”.

Last June, the historic aquarium of the Stazione Zoologica, only a few steps from the museum, was also re-opened to the public after a long restoration. “There was a huge deal of work, from leaky fish tanks to major damages in the pillars, but despite some bureaucratic slowdowns, we did a good job” says Danovaro.