diamond geezer

 Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin 200

A broad variety of homo sapiens visited the Natural History Museum yesterday. There were schoolchildren with rucksacks and clipboards, streaming around the corridors in regulated crocodiles. There were several retired folk, filling another day of leisure with a snatch of highbrow scientific culture. And there was me, popping along because you can't keep me away from a good anniversary. And Charles Darwin's 200th birthday was a damned good anniversary.

Charles Darwin statueI bumped into Mr Darwin halfway up the main staircase. He wasn't saying much, in fact he looked white as a sheet, but he had a fine view looking down across the main hall past Dippy the diplodocus. I bumped into him again down the corridor outside the dinosaur room. He was looking a little more animated this time, dressed in a Victorian morning coat and fielding questions from inquisitive youngsters. I wanted to bump into him again at the Museum's official 200th birthday party, hosted in the austere surroundings of the Marine Invertebrates Gallery, but they wouldn't allow me entry. An operative explained that the event was full, at least by health and safety standards, so none of us waiting outside would be getting any free birthday cake sorry goodbye.

So I did the next best thing and visited the museum's official Big Idea exhibition. It was quite expensive to get in, nine quid for a slow walk round a big room, but felt like decent value for money by the end. The exhibition kicked off with a couple of dead birds on a purple cushion - a first public appearance for Darwin's initial inspiration that something mighty strange might be up with inter-species dissimilarity. And then, ooh, Charlie the green iguana. He was very real, although all he did was sleep on a big branch in a glass case, so he wasn't much more exciting than the stuffed specimens on show further round. A giant tortoise, obviously, and a couple of armadillos and a rhea and a flightless cormorant. It took a genius of Darwin's calibre to realise that all these creatures (and indeed all the rest) were in some way related.

I learnt plenty about Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle (he nearly didn't go until Josiah Wedgwood chipped in, and he happened to be in Chile at the same time as a major earthquake, and his childhood sweetheart married while he was out of the country for five years). I enjoyed the section about his life at Down House (including a full-sized model of his study, which'll probably save any west Londoners from having to get the bus down to Bromley to see the real thing). I also noted a distinct American tinge to the final, more scientific, section of the exhibition (which peaked when an interactive classification quiz repeatedly told me "Good job!" for correctly identifying a clutch of electronic vertebrates).

This is a fact-dense exhibition, although accessibly so. The accompanying information is beautifully presented, be it for one of the great man's notebooks or his collection of beetles or an explanation of how the whole blessed evolution thing actually works. No sign of God anywhere, though, so best not to come if you believe that the Earth was created in six days flat or else you'll spend all your time muttering at the blatant scientific propaganda. And there is, of course, a shop at the end, should you be unable to venture home without a cuddly Darwin or an iguana pillbox or a seventy quid bronze spyglass. You have until the 19th of April to get down here yourself. It may no longer be the great man's birthday, but at least the exhibition shouldn't be quite so crowded.

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