With the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species coming in 2009, it seems natural that a museum curator would take on the project of exhibiting the life and achievements of Charles Darwin. Few great scientists left so rich and varied a record of their achievements and attained such a heightened public profile.
It is also, inevitably, a quixotic project. Few scholarly works, let alone a traveling exhibit, can hope to cover the full measure of this complex man who came up with the first viable theory of evolution, then kept it to himself for nearly two decades.
“Darwin,” the new exhibit at the Museum of Science, which opened over the weekend and runs until April 27th, reflects these realities. On balance, though, “Darwin” is thoughtfully put together and deserves a wide audience. Even visitors already familiar with evolution should emerge enriched.
The show, curated by paleontologist Niles Eldridge of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is in the middle of a two-continent run. It opened in New York in late 2005 and will make stops in Chicago and Toronto before settling in London until 2009.
Blending the professional and the personal, “Darwin” portrays its subject as a “reluctant revolutionary” whose doubts about the reception of his ideas, and ambivalence about their implications, weighed heavily upon him.
What follows is a pleasingly diverse menagerie of objects: fossils and specimens Darwin collected, books and other artifacts he owned, copies of letters and crucial parts of his notebooks. A re-creation of Darwin’s study at his home outside of London includes original instruments, such as his microscope and specimen bottles. The show features live animals in glass cases—an apparent effort to be child-friendly—including two somnolent 50-pound Galapagos tortoises, a green iguana, and horned frogs.
The exhibition’s strength is the way it links the many intellectual threads that gradually led to Darwin’s breakthrough: his geological studies, extensive observations and collections (including a stunning skull of a huge, extinct mammal, the Toxodon platensis), and more. While Darwin is popularly thought to have “discovered” evolution soon after observing the Galapagos finches, the exhibit makes explicit that his ideas crystallized well after his famous sea voyage had ended.
Still, the show skims over Darwin’s career after the release of The Origin of Species—a period when he, battling illness, continued to wrestle with all forms of evidence pertaining to evolution—biological, geological, and physiological.
A final room in the exhibit, dealing with evolutionary theory today, seems an afterthought. Short films and a few displays grapple with creationist myths about evolution—like the idea that it is “only a theory”—and note that DNA has become an essential component of our evidence for evolution. It may be unrealistic for a show on Darwin to tackle creationism at length, but this section fails to convey the grand sweep of post-Darwin inquiry that has solidified evolutionary theory. Perhaps future shows will flesh out the story that this otherwise thoughtful exhibition leaves hanging.