A faking disgrace?

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 think.
I think, therefore I am an evolutionary biologist.

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!

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42 Responses to A faking disgrace?

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Is it possible that the NHM has loaned the originals out to some other museum? Or that it doesn’t actually own the originals?

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    I was similarly upset in ~1985 when I learned that the “Dinosaurs from China!” on display in my local museum were casts, not the actual bones 🙁

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    You could be right, Jenny (hence the question mark in my title). But I had been hoping that the NHM would have been able to put on a more authentic show, at least for the 200th anniversary. What are they waiting for – the 500th?
    I’m with you Cath – a copy doesn’t really do i these cases. As unscientific as this may sound, it has to be the genuine article to feel the connection.

  4. Sabbi Lall says:

    I saw this book in New York a couple of years ago at the Darwin exhibition (AMNH), but I can’t remember whether it said facsimile or not. Cath: with some fossils I half expect them to be casts and facsimiles, thinking the real ones are closeted away or under research since there aren’t that many specimens, but am not sure.

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Ultimately, I think what dismayed me was that the notebook on display looked so convincing. Had I not read all the way to the bottom of the information card, I would never have realised that it was a fake (same etymology as facsimilie?). I would have been completely fooled. I guess the museum thought that they were doing the punters a favour, but for artifacts like this (and having shelled out a serious fee), I want sugar, not sweetener.

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    I’ll be going to Lascaux in a few weeks. Having visited Niaux first, I empathize with your feeling a bit betrayed by your on-site discovery. But if you had known ahead of time that you were going to be looking at a mix of original and copied artifacts, don’t you think you would have had the same insights about Darwin?
    I agree, though, that the price of the ticket is rather breathtaking for not having been told such information ahead of time. And part of the entertainment value is not just in the education, but in how much it can stimulate your imagination – in which case, you would like to see the real McCoy.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Had I been new to all this, I’m sure it would have mattered less that many of the letters and notebooks were copies. But I’m reasonably familiar with the man and his history so I was particularly looking forward to seeing a close hand the stuff of his life – to bring Darwin a bit closer than written accounts can manage.
    In partial defence of the NHM, I should make clear that I paid £25 entry for a family of five. Still a bit steep but not as bad as paying that price for one.

  8. Cameron Neylon says:

    I was at the NHM a few weeks back and was a bit disappointed how far the facsimile thing spread around the museum. It was the main reason for not going into the Darwin exhibition because my suspicions were raised by going around the dinosaur exhibit where the vast majority of displays are resin casts of one sort or another, again generally hidden down in the corner of the information panel.
    I’d twigged when there was what appeared to be a stuffed dodo in a display cabinet, because I thought I’d read somewhere that there weren’t any extant dodo specimens. And once you start looking the reproductions are everywhere.

  9. Brian Clegg says:

    @Stephen: fake (same etymology as facsimilie?) – Seemingly not. According to the OED, the etymology of fake is: Of obscure origin. There appears to be some ground for regarding it as a variant of the older FEAK, FEAGUE, which are prob. ad. Ger. fegen (or the equivalent Du. or LG.) to furbish up, clean, sweep.
    While facsimile is: Orig. two words, and before this cent. usually written as such, L. fac, imper. of fac{ebreve}re to make + simile, neut. of simil-is like.
    I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I compare it with art – if I look at a painting that is a fake, but is such a good fake that an expert couldn’t tell it from the real thing, do I experience anything different from looking at the real thing. Okay, the notebook hadn’t been in Darwin’s hands, but isn’t it an appeal to magic rather than science that wants that to be any different from an indistinguishable copy?

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    Cameron – I don’t think I object so much to replicas of fossils or stuffed birds, where my main interest would be anatomical rather than historical. But with Darwin, I definitely wanted to come close to the history and, while a facsimile goes some way towards that—showing the handwriting, for example—it’s not close enough.
    Which brings me to Brian’s point. Again, I think with art, it’s not the history that matters so much as the quality of the piece. So a faked painting that was technically and aesthetically as good as the original would probably do. Though, on reflection, since art is such a personal thing and has an identifiable creator, I guess I would still prefer to have the real thing.
    It’s not really an appeal to magic, rather a quest for authenticity, a connection with reality. Perhaps I’m not explaining this very well, but I have also felt similar kinds of connection at the graves of people whom I have admired, for example Wordsworth in the Lake District and Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. There was something special about being in the presence of their remains (whatever was left – I have no idea of the decay rates).

  11. Cameron Neylon says:

    I don’t know, that personal feeling of connection – this painting really hung in that place, this person really held that notebook, these bones really did walk around 60 million years ago (alright the latter isn’t really true anyway for a real fossil I know) seems important to me. I don’t think it’s an appeal to magic but as you say a personal connection with a place, person, or event, that seems deeply rooted in our (or at least my) psychology, particularly for people/things we find important.

  12. Brian Clegg says:

    Cameron/Stephen – I still say it’s magic, in the sense that magic ascribes a non-existent power to places/incantations/constructions. I’m not denying that as human beings we like a sense of place/the idea that a notebook was touched by Darwin (so – every breath you take contains a molecule or two that was breathed by him), but I do think that appeal is to the same aspect of pyschology that gives magic its appeal. Or the bones of saint in a cathedral.

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    I will confess to there being a certain ‘magic’ in these encounters (deliberately leaving that term ill-defined) though I don’t see the connection with magic tricks or sorcery (one being artful fakery, the other, a tricksiness that plays on ignorance).
    I guess it is the same thing that motivates people to preserve religious artifacts, though in many cases of course (_e.g._ the Turin shroud, the thousands of fragments of the ‘true’ cross), these are fakes. But I guess it is a testament to the power of these objects that some have thought it in their interest to produce such fakes. There was a memorable scene to this effect in the first series of Blackadder.

  14. steffi suhr says:

    This is so weird. As I am typing this, there is a report on the evening news here on exactly this: using fakes in exhibitions.
    Two opposite views:
    – if fakes are exhibited, something gets lost – the ‘aura’ is not there
    – if it helps to educate people, why not use replicas and create as many exhibitions as possible.
    I think I see both points, but I agree with you, Stephen, that for a bicentenary, fakes are a tad disappointing.

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    This is so weird. As I am typing this, there is a report on the evening news here on exactly this: using fakes in exhibitions.
    I do hope you’re not making this stuff up!

  16. amy charles says:

    For the longest time, I thought the blue whale hanging from the ceiling in the Museum of Natural History in New York was a real whale.

    It’s been more than 25 years and I’m still not quite over the disappointment of learning that it’s only a model. I mean of course, something that size, a real animal, you’d have rotting flesh, obviously much too heavy, etc. But still. It’s just not the same.

  17. steffi suhr says:

    Honestly, Stephen: it’s still on the ZDF website (last headline: ‘Ein Pharao in Kopie’).
    I don’t have enough imagination to make stuff up right now – have you looked at my blog lately?

  18. steffi suhr says:

    p.s. sorry about the whale, Amy 🙁

  19. Brian Clegg says:

    @Stephen – I don’t see the connection with magic tricks or sorcery (one being artful fakery, the other, a tricksiness that plays on ignorance).
    I don’t mean magic tricks, I mean magic in the sense of a genuine belief in the supernatural – i.e. magic as distinct from art or nature.

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    @Amy – I think in that case you should perhaps cut the museum a little slack – think of the smell! There’s a blue whale at the NHM in London and I’ve never assumed anything other than it was a plastic model (though I suspect if I’d been younger when I first saw it, I’d have been taken in). It’s the sheer scale of the thing that impresses!
    @Steffi – I hope you knew I was joking… Anyway, when are you going to get back to icy topics? I passed the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge the other day and thought of you. Ever visited?
    @Brian – thanks for the clarification but I won’t allow that sort of magic on this blog. The feeling I was trying to describe is more a sort of heightened awareness, brought about by seeing or touching a real historical artefact. If it was magic, no such proximity would be necessary of course! 😉

  21. Frank Norman says:

    I think the distinction is between the intellectual content of the exhibits and their emotional content. The intellectual content is unchanged whether they are original objects or copies. The emotional content (wonder, awe, human empathy) is reduced if we know they are not the originals.
    Stephen – if the museum had been really dishonest and labelled them all as originals, would that have increased your enjoyment of the exhibition?

  22. Stephen Curry says:

    I think you’ve put the distinction very well Frank.
    If the museum had been dishonest about the authenticity of the items on display , I would certainly have enjoyed the exhibition more, but only because I would have been completely duped. The replica documents were very convincing.
    On balance, I’m happier that the NHM did not resort to such unscrupulous tactics. Though I wonder if the exhibition would have been so popular if they’d been more up-front in their promotional literature…

  23. steffi suhr says:

    @Steffi – I hope you knew I was joking
    Of course not – I am German and don’t have a sense of humour. Also explains my thorough response, link and all.
    I’ve actually never been to the Scott Polar Resarch Institute, but I’ve been at the British Antarctic Survey down the road quite a few times (ooh, just thought of a possible post…).
    But I insist on writing about some above-freezing topics as well 😛

  24. Cristian Bodo says:

    The distinction that Frank makes is certainly interesting, and begs in turn the question of which content is the one that people care the most when they choose to go see an exhibition.
    For example, imagine that all the pieces in the Louvre were replaced by extremely high-quality replicas that no one but an expert could distinguish from the real thing, and this was kept in secret. Do you think that the enjoyment that people derive from visiting it would be somehow diminished? Or, on the other hand, imagine that you use these replicas to set up an alternate Louvre somewhere else while being completely honest about the fact that what’s in exhibition are not originals: how many visitors do you think you would get? My guess is that is not going to be anywhere close to the numbers that the actual Louvre regularly gets. The (somewhat disturbing) conclusion is that the emotional content is far more important than the intellectual one in these cases. In other words: whether you’re exhibiting originals or not is kind of irrelevant, what really matters is what the public thinks that you’re exhibiting.

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    @Steffi – (ooh, just thought of a possible post…)
    That’s the Scott-of-the-Antarctic-never-say-die spirit! And of course I do also enjoy your hotter posts!

  26. Stephen Curry says:

    My goodness, Cristian, this is getting very philosophical. I’m going to have to think about that one. In the meantime, I have some exam questions to set…

  27. Åsa Karlström says:

    Cristian: In other words: whether you’re exhibiting originals or not is kind of irrelevant, what really matters is what the public thinks that you’re exhibiting.
    Isn’t this why some works of art that are painted by a famous person are considered to be “excellent and splendid” and therefore good rather than if they were made by an “aveage 4 yrs old”. (The rather inflammed discussion about the abstract art that was painted by a 4yr old. It would be ok with abstract art that “looks like something a 4yr old would pain” if it was Pollock who painted it, but if a real 4 yrs old paints it it isn’t the same interest?) It might be different talking about art and ‘other things on display’??
    Personally, I think I would be disappointed if all things at a museum/exhibition was facsimile/fake/non original simply because I like that “wow, this mummy is actually 3000 yrs old and I am staring at it through the glass and wow that is cool”. It would not be the same if everything in the Egyptian exhibition was “this is what we think it looked like”. Sorry, especially in these times of not liking the idea of conquering nations taking over cultural things but it isn’t that different from watching a tv show or a computer thing then.
    Amy> Now I am wondering about the blue whale at the Museum I went to all the tinme as a child. You mean that was a fake too… Hm, come to think of it, I think there were real bones mixed with “plastic ones” so one could see that the real bones were actually that size but since they didn’t have the whole skeleton….

  28. Stephen Curry says:

    I’ve nearly finished my exam questions but need a break and have had a chance to do some mulling over.
    @Cristian – you make an interesting point but I think the impact of the authenticity of artifacts on display, whether they be works of art or purely historical object, depends on the context and on the viewer. For paintings, a copy that was indistinguishable from an original by some famous artist, would surely afford the same aesthetic impact, whether it was known to be a fake or not. But for an art historian, authenticity would be vital (this is sometimes a problem for museum curators who need to establish the provenance of a particular work – Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink mentions one such problem faced by the Getty Museum and the problem is a core part of the plot in Peter Carey’s enjoyable Theft: a love story). Equally a piece of rubbish executed by a younger daVinci, say, would not be of much aesthetic value but would of course be an important object for a historian or a student of art. It all depends.
    With purely historical artifacts — Åsa’s egyptian mummies, for example — authenticity is vital for anyone who loves history and is looking for that thrill of proximity. But a class of six-year-olds might well be satisfied with a replica, just to see how the embalming was done, or how scary the results turned out after several thousand years.

  29. Stephen Curry says:

    Åsa, your additional point about value deriving from the celebrity of the artist is an interesting one. I think it may be a particularly difficult problem for modern art where I suspect people are taken in by celebrity and shy away from judging the work on its own merits (more difficult now that artists have moved a long way from accurate rendering of form and emotion to more abstract forms). My son and I paid a visit to the Tate Modern last Saturday morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely by passing judgement on all that we saw. There is much from Picasso to enjoy, for example, but a lot of it leaves me completely cold. I was particularly amused by the artist who slapped a mirror on a canvas, pretending this to be a radical statement about art*. Yeah, right. But I loved a piece that just consisted of planks of wood leaning against the wall that had been cut and carved in different ways. Go figure!
    *The card beside the mirror work stated that the artist had turned art “upside-down” with this work. More like left to right…!

  30. amy charles says:

    Six, yes, that’s how old I was when I first saw my whale. What’s fantastic is that at a certain time, apparently, all major natural history museums thought it dead necessary to have a blue whale model. There must have been a factory somewhere. A factory with TREMENDOUS DOORS.
    Stephen and Cristian, I think the question of fakes ignores the fact that there are people out there with very fine sensibilities. I have no doubt that there are a fair number of 4-year-olds who could tell the difference between a good fake Rousseau and a real one. The grownups are probably easier to fool, but I bet you’d get a lot hesitating in front of the picture and saying that it didn’t look — quite right — but hm, maybe they’d remembered it wrong, but. I think that’s probably true even when the art is remote from our own time — it wouldn’t be quite strange or live enough. The milk just beginning to turn — it’ll be all right for another week, but you notice.
    Frankly, this is my delight in museums — accidentally seeing exhibitions of Someone Famous’s work without having heard of the painter before or knowing that the exhibit was on. I’ll never forget seeing Francis Bacon’s work for the first time at the old Tate that way – as far as I’d known, Francis Bacon was a crumbly old philosopher, and I didn’t know that I liked these paintings at all, but they were obviously very, very good. Not just accomplished — which they were — but good. Something real was there. The same when I saw Les Demoiselles D’Avignon for the first time — well, not the same, because it practically blew me through the back wall. I’d had no idea. They had it in the mezzanine gallery on the 2nd floor of MoMA, where something else usually was, and I came up the escalator and it went off like a bomb, and I said, what the hell is that? And, you know, that was it for the day, I was done at the museum. I don’t think you can ask more of art.

  31. Stephen Curry says:

    @Amy – A factory with TREMENDOUS DOORS.
    Only NASA has such factories. It’s a little known fact that the profitable manufacture of fake Blue Whales funded the Apollo missions…
    Your point about suspecting fakes is well made – this is Gladwell’s argument in Blink, that these complex judgements can been made even without thinking too hard or too explicitly about the reasons why.
    Your description of your powerful reaction to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon is fantastic! Wikipedia probably doesn’t do it justice – so can you say why your reaction was so strong?

  32. Cristian Bodo says:

    I sort of disagree that value deriving from the celebrity status of the artist is restricted to modern art. There are many examples of classical paintings whose authenticity has been disputed by experts for decades (this Goya example is one of the most recent). Now, if people who look at paintings all day for a living and have developed an extremely keen eye for them can’t agree on whether a particular work was done by a famous master, someone “of the school of” or a particularly good con artist, then we may admit that for the overwhelming majority of us mere mortals it really makes no difference (from a purely aesthetical point of view, of course). And yet, go and tell a museum curator that those Rembrandts that are the pride of the institution appear not to have been painted by Rembrandt after all, and the answer is unlikely to be something along the lines of “Oh well, but they look damn good anyway, don’t they?”

  33. Stephen Curry says:

    I agree with you on that Cristian. I guess I picked on modern art as an easier target, but your point—with regard to works of art—is well made.

  34. Clare Dudman says:

    I agree with you about the importance of the real thing. I want to feel a connection, I like the thought that I am seeing exactly what the artist or the scientist saw, that those molecules of pigment actually came from him, that he touched them…all this important to me. I know it is illogical and that I already breathe in the molecules expired by everyone else, but this is still important to me.
    And…£25! Each? I think I’d expect to be given a facsimile of my own for that.

  35. Stephen Curry says:

    I don’t think your view is the least bit illogical, Clare. Who cares if we have breathed the same molecules of air as our antecedents? It’s the things they created and worked with that makes the (his)story.
    But please don’t be too outraged on my behalf on account of the cost. It was £25 for 5 of us. Same price for a family of 4 – so that was the first time child No.3 hadn’t penalised on cost. Well done to the NHM for that at least (though better value if the stuff were real)!

  36. Clare Dudman says:

    Ha, that’s not too bad, then! I’ll let them off (I expect they’ll be very relieved to hear that :-))

  37. Stephen Curry says:

    I’ll let them off (I expect they’ll be very relieved to hear that).
    I’m sure they were. Everyone in London is fearful of you, Clare, lest you let slip the snails of war!

  38. Lee Turnpenny says:

    I was also pleased to see the mockingbirds, after all the apocryphal bunkum of the finches we’ve been fed.
    I was once told that, as victuals were running low on the homeward-bound Beagle, all the finch specimens got eaten. “Including the beaks?” I asked.

  39. amy charles says:

    @ Richard — Wikipedia probably doesn’t do it justice – so can you say why your reaction was so strong?
    Yes. It’s a fantastic painting.
    More helpfully: No. I don’t understand any of Picasso’s painting. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at that painting, before and after the cleaning, and all I can tell you is that the women are terrifying and the painting is big. (Although when I first saw it I wasn’t quite aware of the five women, just — a whole impression of the painting. Faces, shapes.) I could go into a lot of blather about rhythmic elements, but I don’t think it’d help. I was very surprised to see how pink the painting was after cleaning, so you see right away that the whole thing’s a big damn vagina, and a voracious, annihilating, pretty one, too. My last reaction to it was that the man despised and feared women. But that’s a rhetorical thing, and however strong it is, it’s not where the force of the painting is. I think it has to do with the shapes — they’re very beautiful, and they attack you, especially if you aren’t prepared. It isn’t quite the same — it hasn’t the machismo — but I think there’s a similar violence in Ulysses.

  40. amy charles says:

    Whoops! Sorry, Stephen, you’re not Richard at all. Next thing you know I’ll be giving your drinks away.

  41. amy charles says:

    And yet, go and tell a museum curator that those Rembrandts that are the pride of the institution appear not to have been painted by Rembrandt after all, and the answer is unlikely to be something along the lines of “Oh well, but they look damn good anyway, don’t they?”
    Agreed, Cristian, but he’s got worries other than art. And people do swoon over the names. That’s the main argument I have with how art is taught — people end up with this exaggerated respect for names and totally blind and deaf to what’s in front of them. They’ve been taught intentionally not to look or hear.
    I got very lucky in where I lived and how I was allowed to wander around in museums and libraries on my own. I had Saturday art lessons in a local museum school when I was eight; used to take the bus downtown by myself and roam the museum until the class started. Looking, drawing. Was allowed to wander out of class in high school, too, and go to the library. It felt sensible to ignore classes in college, get on a bus and go to New York, and spend the afternoon wandering around the permanent collections at the Whitney, the Met, MoMA. Same at school in Brussels; spent more time at museums than in classes. Sketching, looking, letting it hit me, trying to understand. I hadn’t been ruined by formal education in these things, so I could look at the stuff. Afterwards some education was good and interesting, but not too much; I’m not a painter, I don’t have that kind of use for it. But I did live for a while near the Rhode Island School of Design, and had a friend going there, so I used to tag along to lectures sometimes. And I modeled for a while, too, so I learned a lot that way, seeing what the students were trying to get control over and listening to the teachers teach them.

  42. Stephen Curry says:

    I will overlook the Richard thing, Amy, since you gave such a visceral account of your response to the painting! 😉
    Actually, it was almost a bit too visceral for the breakfast table, where I read it: I nearly sprayed my wife with muesli. Makes it a must see for next time I’m in NYC…
    {thinks wishfully…}

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