Review – Darwin’s Big Idea – Natural History Museum, London


On Saturday my uncle and I went to the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History museum. Though there were substantial lines to get into the museum (due to bag checks), there were none for the exhibit itself, which I was glad of, and we had a Southwest Trains “two fer” coupon that cut the cost right down. Inside, it was fairly quiet; this wasn’t the kind of exhibit you’d want to take a very young child to, as most of it involved reading.

The exhibit itself was a melange of live animals (only two), reproduced Galapagos scenes (kind of like dioramas, I suppose), actual specimens collected by Darwin (including beetles and birds), stuffed specimens displaying the difference in species (I found the stuffed tortoises very sad – they could easily have still been alive today! – but then when I read that boats would come by the island and take 700 at a time to stuff the holds with fresh meat, it rather dulled my outrage), fossils, actual letters written by or to Darwin, a recreation of his study at his post-London home, facsimiles of letters and plant samples, skeletons, illustrative diagrams, and a few movies. It followed his life from the time he was approached to be the naturalist on the Beagle to some of the post-“Origin of Species” brouhaha, then went into the impact of his theories on modern scientific thinking and how it’s been able to predict things that have been confirmed with genetic sequencing.

I found this exhibit quite engaging, and not just because I had the opportunity to look at “the actual letter encouraging Darwin’s dad to let him go sailing!” and “the actual birds Darwin collected on the Galapagos!” The exhibit really focused on the evolution of his thought, which I found fascinating. I was certainly intrigued just by how a person who was expecting to become a minister went on to become a respected scientist and author – the whole idea of needing to get one’s parent to agree to accepting a job was shocking to me! – but the exhibit included a lot about his earlier fascination with collecting and classifying things that made it seem like this was a really natural progression for him to make. And the impact of seeing animals so very alike separated merely by a sea channel, and of seeing animals that so clearly looked to be related, somehow, to the fossils that were just lying on the ground (in Argentina) – it made it clear how he put his connections together and came up with the idea that animals evolved into other animals and we weren’t just living in a state of “everything wot God put here 6000 years ago and wot hasn’t changed since.”

I was also surprised to realize Darwin was quite aware of how controversial his conclusions would be, and that he actually postponed releasing them for some 20 years, waiting until the time was right (and had disagreements about them with his wife, who was terribly worried she wouldn’t see him in heaven, and with the captain of the Beagle, whom I think considered Darwin a heretic). I was reminded of Galileo being forced to recant his theory of the earth revolving around the sun at the hands of the Vatican – who’d think that the hand of religion would still be strangling scientists in Victorian times? – but clearly, science and “obviousness” will never be enough for those who can’t trust the facts placed squarely in front of them when it conflicts with what they want to be true.

Anyway – it was a good exhibit, and I recommend it to those who are interested in this sort of thing.

(Darwin’s Big Idea continues through April 19th, 2009. Two for one ticket vouchers can be printed off of the Southwest Trains website – look for the “Days Out” link.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Darwin’s Big Idea – Natural History Museum, London”

  1. Frank Says:

    Thank you for the review, it’s very detailed and made my doubts go away.

    I have to fly over to London from Amsterdam, so my trip to the museum is expensive, which made me doubt about the quality of the exhibition and the costs.

    Just one question; how large is the exhibition? They keep calling it the “largest ever, but many have done that before”. Can you wander around the exhibition for a few hours, or is it the disappointing “one hour and you’ve seen everything” exhibition?

    Thanks in advance

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Well I wouldn’t fly over here from Amsterdam to see this exhibit unless you’re completely crazy about Darwin and seeing stuff written in his hand would be great for you.

    One thing this exhibit does demand is an excellent command of the English language. There’s piles and piles of written material and extensive explanations of the various things being “shown” and how Darwin put his thoughts together. It’s not particularly interesting to the under 8 crowd, to be sure.

    As far as the size of the show, I think it’s quite small, about four rooms, but still it took my uncle and I two hours to get through it, and not because it was crowded – we were just fascinated by the stuff, spending careful time looking, say, at the boxes of birds and beetles, trying to see the little differences between them, the big map of the route of the Beagle, where it was when and what things (live and fossils) were found there. There is also a movie (about 10 minutes
    long) and they’ve installed Darwin’s study from his old house. I liked that a lot – it was great to see how much he did with such simple things!

    So if you were in London for some other reason I would very much go see this show.

    Please let me know if you have any other questions. I’d love to hear what you think of the exhibit if you go.

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