Darwin’s beard.

My three favourite exhibits from the Darwin – Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which I had a chance to see last Wednesday:

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Pair of mockingbirds which Darwin collected on the Galapagos Islands (never before on public display). Their slight differences inspired Darwin to consider for the first time that species change in time. Aestheticised display, with the birds bedded on a cushion of purple velvet.

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Treasure chest which belonged to Darwin’s daughter Etty. It mainly contains mementoes and keepsakes of her father, such as hair from his beard wrapped in tissue.

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Darwin’s first sketch of an evolutionary tree of life visualising relationships between organisms (jotted down in Notebook B). Fascinating combination of ‘I think’, diagram, scribbles and notes, suggesting that Darwin developed his ideas visually, via images.

There’s also a neat reconstruction of his study on display, two life specimens (an iguana and a frog), and lots of models to be touched by visitors, or mounted specimens to be looked at through magnifying glasses.

All of this is accompanied by extensive labelling, but it’s worth taking the time to read the many quotes and extracts from letters, notebooks and manuscripts, to not only get an idea of Darwin the scientist, naturalist, collector and traveller, but also of Darwin the hesitant innovator, the obedient son, and the loving husband, father and friend.

My only complaint is that there’s no catalogue, not even a small exhibition leaflet; one is forced, for better or for worse, to read Darwin’s books or Janet Browne‘s no doubt fabulous two-volume, 1200 page biography.

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