Darwin Exhibition Walk Through
For Immediate Release
Contact: Nancy O'Shea
(312) 665-7103 (For Media Use Only)
Darwin's Voyage of Discovery
In Darwin, visitors will join Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery and see how his revolutionary theory took shape.
Darwin’s iconic bearded image marks the entry into this extraordinary life, where visitors will first encounter the naturalist’s original magnifying glass, the lens through which Darwin observed nature in minute detail. The simple tool highlights the important place of observation in science. In a short video, scientists from the exhibition’s organizing museums explore their own roles in building on Darwin’s work.
The World before Darwin
In Darwin’s time, most people, even scientists, believed that species had existed in their current form since the world began. Only recently had geologists begun to understand that the earth was millions (in fact, we now know, billions) of years old. The evolution of species had been suggested by only a handful of thinkers—Darwin’s grandfather among them. Visitors will see classic illustrations and mounted animal skeletons representing the well-ordered but unchanging Victorian view of nature.
Born into a wealthy family, Darwin had little interest in school, but he was an avid naturalist, a collector and observer of plants, insects, and rocks. Visitors will see artifacts and photos from Darwin’s prominent family—the Darwins on his father’s side, the Wedgwoods on his mother’s—the book his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote on his own idea of evolution, and some of the beetles and other insects Darwin joyfully collected in his youth, along with his jottings about them.
A film on Darwin’s life and work is narrated by the scientist’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. Drawing on archival photographs and new images of Darwin’s journals, manuscripts, and homes, the film introduces visitors to Darwin’s life, including his early observations of nature, his journey on the HMS Beagle, his subsequent years of research, and the impact of his theory on science and culture.
Voyage of the Beagle
The section opens with the original letter that changed Darwin’s life: an invitation to serve as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle as it set out to map the oceans and islands of South America and the South Pacific. Some of the personal items Darwin took along, including a one-shot pistol and his Bible, are featured here, along with a 26-inch scale model of the 90-foot ship.
Surrounded by an ocean soundscape, visitors enter the centerpiece of the exhibition: a circular room featuring many of the wonders Darwin saw on his five-year trip—including some of the actual specimens he collected—and tracing his mental journey from a curious amateur observer to a scientist pondering the patterns and connections in what he saw. Live animals play a starring role here: three ornate Argentinean horned frogs and a five-foot-long South American green iguana. Visitors will also see fossils and mounted specimens of the uniquely American plants and animals that captivated Darwin: rheas, giant sloths, and armadillos (including the cast of a huge fossil glyptodont, an extinct armadillo-like creature the size of a cow); Galapagos tortoises with different shell shapes adapted to their specific islands; mockingbirds, penguins, and blue-footed boobies, and much, much more. Notes and letters Darwin sent to friends and family give visitors a glimpse of his excitement, his thought processes…and his problems with seasickness.
The Idea Takes Shape
Returning to England, Darwin settled in London and began the real voyage of his lifetime—an intellectual journey that continued for years as he examined the specimens he had brought back from his trip and began writing up his research. A number of these specimens are on display here, from lichens to finches, along with the notebooks in which he analyzed them and letters to colleagues that show the development of his thinking. It was in London that Darwin’s revolutionary ideas began to unfold, as dramatically illustrated in the first evolutionary tree Darwin sketched in his notebook. Fascinating displays point out not only the concepts Darwin explored but the evidence on which he based his theory.
The London years were also the period when Darwin wooed and won his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, whose family is best known for their superb pottery. (The exhibition includes, early on, the famous Portland Vase given by Josiah Wedgwood to Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather.) Visitors will be charmed by Charles and Emma’s love letters, and by Darwin’s personal notes debating with himself whether or not to marry.
A Life’s Work
At Down House, where Darwin spent the next 40 years, he continued to refine his theory while studying barnacles, pigeons, and plants. He wrote of his ideas at last to the botanist Joseph Hooker, saying it was “like confessing a murder.” Still, he didn’t publish his theory until a similar one advanced by Russel Wallace forced his hand.
Visitors will find themselves transported to Down House through a large-scale, time-lapse video of the sandwalk path Darwin created on its grounds. Darwin often strolled here, observing, experimenting, and contemplating as he walked. Near it is a painstaking reconstruction of Darwin’s study, with many objects brought from Down House itself. In the study visitors will see Darwin’s microscope and other research tools, the walking stick he used on the sandwalk, specimen bottles, and more. Also on display is one of the few existing manuscript pages from The Origin of Species, along with a first edition of the published book.
Down House was also where Darwin did his research and where the couple raised their children; ten were born to Emma, though two died as infants. Of all Darwin’s treasures shown here, the one that may have been dearest to him is a small wooden writing box filled with keepsakes of his daughter Annie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of ten.
The final sections of the exhibition deal with the science of evolution and the refinements it has undergone since Darwin’s time, as new research methods are developed and new information gained. Visitors can learn more about the workings of natural selection and some of its recent applications in a science theater video that includes two segments from the PBS series, Evolution. Displays delve into the meaning of “theory” in science and the controversial subject of “social Darwinism.” And several prominent biologists discuss their views on reconciling science and faith.
Several interactive stations in this section help visitors understand concepts that are central to evolution, such as homologies (similarities in structure that indicate two species evolved from a common ancestor), adaptation to the environment, and natural selection.
Epilogue: Endless Forms Most Beautiful
At the end of the exhibition, visitors will walk through a display of live and photographed orchids, a beautiful and diverse plant family that fascinated Darwin. Studying their nectar-producing organs and the shapes of the insects and birds that pollinated them helped Darwin understand how plants and animals evolved together, each adapting to the other. As visitors leave, they’ll hear Darwin’s great-great-grandson reading from the final paragraph of The Origin of Species:
“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”