Today I finally made it to the Darwin Big Idea Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London. I had been concerned that our almost legendary lack of familial organization was going to prevent us from seeing it (Matt caught it back in January). But late last week I summoned the wherewithal to log on and book tickets, just managing to sneak in a visit before the show closes.
The school Easter holidays are still in full swing, so we had to bump our way through packed corridors to get to the entrance. With a cursory glance at our timed ticket (twenty-five quid, thankyouverymuch), the attendant ushered us into the dimly lit exhibition rooms.
The very first item on display (after the ‘No photography’ sign) was a brace of mockingbirds—laid out on their backs—that had been shot and tagged by Darwin on two adjacent Galápagos islands. The perceptible differences in beaks and plumage between these birds, rather than the more celebrated finches (which he didn’t cotton on to until much later), helped to stimulate Darwin’s thoughts on variation. This was the real deal – here were specimens collected by the man himself.
And there were more treats in store. A letter from Captain Fitzroy to Beaufort, giving thanks for his lucky choice of Darwin as a sailing companion. One from Darwin, offering observations on his adjustment to life aboard the Beagle. For the record, Fitzroy’s hand-writing was much neater.
Further on there was a real coup – Darwin’s notebook in which appears the famous diagram of the tree of life, evidently his first conceptualization of descent with modification:
I read through the card posted to the side of the display case to glean the background to this famous document and at the bottom spotted an important word. It was very telling, shocking even. It said:
Facsimile? This is an exhibition in Britain’s national Museum of Natural History, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the country’s pre-eminent natural historian. But instead of showing us the genuine article, the notebook touched by, scrawled on by Darwin, we have to make do with a copy?
Now, I understand that this is an extremely valuable notebook. The ink pigments may be sensitive to light and will fade in time. It is an artifact that clearly must be preserved. But, if it is not to be exhibited to the public, even on the occasion of a bicentennial anniversary, then why exactly is it being kept? And who for?
Having seen it once, that dreaded word facsimile kept on popping up—not everywhere, but often enough to take some of the shine off the exhibition for me. There were still some genuine things to enjoy. A sample of Darwin’s collection of beetles from the voyage: some just tiny dots supported on little strips of paper, others, horned giants with curlicue antlers gleaming like black enamel. And some of the accessory exhibits were striking too: we particularly enjoyed a cabinet full of skeletons that made an elegant show of the structural similarities between—among other creatures—a chimp, a harbour seal, a river dolphin, and a bulldog with the most dreadful teeth.
There was a mock-up of Darwin’s study at Down House, but this held less appeal since the real thing—which we have seen before—is just a few miles away from our own home. I would have preferred to see a replica of his berth aboard the tiny Beagle. As a big fan of sailing stories (among them the works of Patrick O’Brian and Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness, a wonderful fictionalized account of Darwin’s and Fitzroy’s tempestuous voyage), that is one facsimile I could have lived with.
But that notebook? Bah, humbug!