Darwin. The Museum of Science, Boston, February 18-April 27, 2007. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org) in collaboration with the Museum of Science, Boston; The Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia; The Field Museum, Chicago; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; and the Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom.
"You know about the theory of evolution. But how much do you know about the man behind it?" This is the question the Museum of Science in Boston asks in a richly layered exhibition that appeals to the person well versed in Charles Darwin's (1809-82) theory of evolution by natural selection as well as to the individual new to the theory. The exhibition introduces Darwin as the fifth of six children born to the successful Dr. Robert Waring Darwin and his wife Susannah. A child of privilege, the young Darwin was an indifferent student but an avid observer of nature, who preferred scrutinizing beetles under his magnifying glass to the rote memorization of the classroom.
Among the many letters scattered throughout the exhibition is one to his cousin William Darwin Fox containing an elegant drawing of a beetle with the inscription, "The insect is more beautiful than the drawing." When another illustration of a Darwin specimen was published in Stephen's Illustrations of British Insects he confided to his cousin, "No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing . . . the magic words, 'captured by C. Darwin, Esq.' "
Such primary sources suggest how the child was father to the man who would go on to patiently study nature's facts until they yielded evolution's secrets. Other documents trace Darwin's sojourn at Edinburgh and Cambridge. Excursions with botanist Rev. Stevens Henslowe nurtured his love for nature's secrets. In 1831, after receiving his degree from Cambridge, Darwin armed himself with his geologist's hammer and accompanied geologist Rev. Adam Sedgwick on a walking tour of Wales. During this time, Darwin advanced from collecting facts to developing ideas on developing general laws based on his observations.
This biographical exposition leads to the exhibition's focus on Darwin's journeys aboard HMS Beagle and the thinking that went on inside his mind. A huge map of the five-year-long journey dominates one wall, showing the stops made by the Beagle. While viewing the ship's log, the visitor hears the sounds of a ship coursing through the sea, providing a sense of Darwin's sea voyage. His Bible, guns, and telescope are exhibited near to a model of the Beagle.
By the autumn of 1835, the Beagle was at the Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago, re-created in the exhibition in a series of "islands." One island shows a stunted cactus, iguanas, crabs, blue-footed boobies, and rheas. A second island features giant armadillos and three-toed sloths hanging from a tree. A third island highlights giant tortoises with Darwin's comments about trying to ride them. Birdsong is heard at the fourth island, which documents Darwin's discoveries about mockingbirds and finches. In close proximity to these re-creations are three live exhibits, which include a six-foot-long iguana, four horned tree frogs, and two giant Galápagos tortoises. Among the thousand specimens Darwin crated and sent back to England were fossils that varied from small shells to the huge skull of a Pleistocene-epoch toxodon. These are exhibited along with the many plant specimens that Darwin "plucked" and "pressed" and mounted before sending them on to his mentor, Henslowe, for botanical identification.
Darwin returned home on October 2, 1836, and began the journey within his mind in earnest. …