Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London

As part of the many and varied celebrations of the upcoming 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the Natural History Museum in London opened their exhibit 'Darwin: Big Idea Exhibition' this past weekend. Myself and my flatmate Liz found out about it a couple of weeks back thanks to an ad in the tube, while we just happened to have a little friend with us:

She being a longterm Darwin geek and myself having long been interested in evolutionary biology (especially with regard to physical anthropology), we decided we needed to see it! And although the opening weekend was possibly a poor choice of timing (I was surprised at the amount of people in there for a Saturday afternoon, assuming everyone was just around for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards), it was well worth going to see.

We spent a good hour or so in there, and that was even with skipping over some text and a video or two due to the crowding - there is most certainly plenty to see. The exhibition follows a pretty straightforward narrative starting with Darwin ending up being part of the Beagle team, working through that voyage and Darwin's discoveries and observations along the way, then looking at the immense amount of work and research he did in the years following that and leading up to the publishing of On the Origin of Species. Toward the end of the exhibition it moves away from Darwin-specific narrative and looks broadly at evolutionary theory and evidence, with practical examples (casts, skulls etc) and videos/blurbs on the teaching of evolutionary theory, and where evolutionary theory stands in modern science and society.

The content and structure of the exhibition is excellent, it follows a simple and logical structure with just the right amount of information without being overwhelming. I liked that there were little asides about scientific facts, or certain environments and animals that Darwin would've encountered. There were a goodly amount of graphics used - the one that stood out most for me and that i'm still recalling is a large map that filled a wall, detailing the voyage of the Beagle and how long it took; i'd no idea until then just what an epic journey it had been! I can understand Darwin's joy at getting the chance to tag along.

More than anything though, the amount and quality of artefacts and specimens on display really highlighted the exhibition for me - no section was sparse in the Darwin-specific sections (and even the latter part of the exhibition was still illustrated reasonably well with specimens and graphics). Some of my favourite items were Darwin's notebooks and letters, detailing his notes and conversations from the time when he was starting to form his ideas and theories about evolution and natural selection - and his first sketch of what is now known as an evolutionary tree was actually quite thrilling to see. All this thought and puzzling over issues, these brilliant minds coming together to nut out details of what we all take for granted today, it was quite amazing.

Of course, Darwin's list of pros and cons of marriage was a lovely, hilarious inclusion ("less time for clever conversations at the gentleman's club", "not as much money for books" - Oh, Darwin.).

As an admirer of Darwin and biological science as a whole, I found the exhibition incredibly interesting and rewarding. As a museum enthusiast, I feel it's been done very well. I shall have to go back again if and when it gets quieter, for a more thorough go through - I can definitely recommend it to anyone to go and see if they can!

And now I really want to visit Darwin's house, but that'll have to wait til next year.

1 comment:

Peter Mc said...

Glad you liked the Voyage map - when we restage it, you'll be able to follow this one online.