scholars and rogues

Darwin Day

There are quite a few celebrations this year of one form or another—the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine (although that’s not such a hot issue in Britain, outside of Thetford and Lewes); the 350th anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell (LOTS of concerts all year here in London); the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel (ditto); the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn (ditto); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mendelssohn (ditto again). But the big celebration all year here has been the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (and, incidentally, the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species). There have been any number of events to commemorate this—new stamps and coins, a blockbuster show (now closed) at the Natural History Museum (and the opening of the new Darwin Centre), and lots and lots of books—it’s been a bonanza for the publishing industry. And any number of shows at smaller museums.

So Saturday we headed up to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to check out the Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts show, and it’s worth the trip. Actually, I found it a lot more stimulating than the big show at the Natural History Museum, which was hugely interesting if you didn’t actually know a lot about Darwin already. Clearly, most of the people attending the exhibit when we were there did not. The Fitzwilliam show is different, and I think just as successful. The focus is on the impact of evolutionary theory, both before and after Darwin, and the arts. Not only that—a fair amount of the show was devoted to materials (paintings of geological formations, photographs of facial expressions) that were used in support of Darwin’s theory, and the more general issue of evolution.

As far as the mechanics of the show, it was excellent. The layout was generous across the four rooms used, the narratives were highly informative (as opposed to, say, The National Gallery show we reviewed last week), and the show demonstrated a critical intelligence, really only faltering in the last room with the stuff on Degas, which confused me a bit. The overall arcs ere manifold—the underlying support for, and fascination with, the general notion of evolutionary theory that emerged in the early part of the 19th century in geology (particularly Lyell’s work), the tools that Darwin used to buttress his claims (including photography and drawings), and the various transmutations that Darwinism went through in the various arts. A fair amount of the show concentrated on the impact that Darwin in particular had on views of the poor as depicted in paintings in the second half of the century, with a full spectrum of social Darwinism on display. In addition, some of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit were the photographs and drawing used by Darwin in his own works, particularly The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, in which Darwin specifically countered much of the criticism of Origin that tried to show the various ways humans were different from other animals. The Joseph Wolf works in this section are particularly impressive, as are the various items used to portray the importance of sexual selection.

The inclusion of Redon’s Les Origines, in which Redon takes a much darker view of the evolution of life, was genuinely inspired (Redon sent a set off to Pasteur in admiration). We tend to forget not only how influential the Origin was during the second half of the 19th century—and we also tend to forget how ready scientists and artists were for Darwin’s work. On the other hand, having nearly a whole section of a room devoted to Degas and his drawing of slope-headed ballerinas without a full discussion of of Degas’ racism and anti-semitism seemed just a bit odd. Yes, the show does a nice job of showing how much impact Darwin had on the Impressionists, but to end the show with only half the story on Degas was a bit disappointing after the general excellence of everything that had preceded it. Overall, though, an extremely stimulating show, which runs through 8 October. The companion volume is currently on sale, too.

And since we were in Cambridge for the day, and since Cambridge has about 30 or 40 small museums, most of which are eminently worth investigating, we decided to explore. So after quick check at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science (closed on Saturdays), we ended up at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science, which turns out to be the place you bring your kids on Saturdays if they’re growing up in Cambridge. All those rocks! Fossils! Dinosaurs!Whatever! And a pretty cool exhibit on Darwin:The Geologist, which included his microscope, which was on loan from the Museum of the History of Science, so I didn’t miss it after all. This was on Darwin as a geologist—you tend to forget that for a number of years, Darwin’s work was mostly geological in nature, and that many of the arguments he uses in Origin were similar to those used earlier in his seminal work on coral reefs. The Sedgwick has an amazing trove of Darwinia, including the thousands and thousands of rocks he collected as a naturalist on The Beagle.

So, a good Darwin day (even though the real Darwin Day was 12 February, Darwin’s birthday). I like living in a country that puts Darwin on its currency.

The miniature sheet of four stamps above is part of a series of stamps the Royal Mail issued earlier this year in celebration of Darwin; this set diplays Galapagos animals on a background of an admiralty hydrographic map. Other countries honouring Darwin this year on stamps include Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, India, Cayman Islands (and several other Commonwealth countries), Czech Republic, and Ireland. And no, the United States has not ever put Darwin’s picture on a stamp.

Categories: scholars and rogues

2 replies »

  1. I’ve been a fan of this website for a couple of years, being entertained by the various flame wars between my father and other participants, some knowledgeable, some complete idiots. I was drawn to this post because the Darwin Exhibit is the one thing I’m looking forward to seeing later this month. Since I will be finishing up my last two years at Trinity College, I will be soaking up all of the educational and cultural delights that the Cambridge community has to offer.