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Darwin exhibition

Darwin exhibition

About the exhibition

Darwin reveals the experiences that first led Charles Darwin to formulate his groundbreaking theories. The exhibition explores the life and work of the man whose theory of evolution forever changed the perception of the origin and nature of species on Earth. It celebrates 200 years since the birth of this great naturalist, geologist and thinker. Through artefacts, documents, film, computer interactives, live animals and plants, as well as Darwin's own personal items, this landmark international exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the man almost 150 years after the publication of his revolutionary work, On the Origin of Species.

Skeleton from the 'World Before Darwin' section of the exhibition.
Skeleton from the 'World Before Darwin' section of the exhibition.
Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Exhibition highlights

  • original notebooks used by Darwin on his voyage on the HMS Beagle
  • an elaborate reconstruction of Darwin's study
  • live animals, such as an iguana and blotched blue tongue lizard
  • a vibrant and colourful montage of live orchids, and
  • the connections between Darwin and Australia, both during and after his visit in 1836.
An elaborate reproduction of the table in Charles Darwin's study at Down House.
An elaborate reproduction of the table in Charles Darwin's study at Down House. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Exhibition sections

The exhibition is divided into eight sections, covering themes across Darwin's life and work:

Introduction

The introduction to the Darwin exhibition is a comprehensive examination of Darwin's life and seminal discoveries as well as the science of evolution and natural selection.

The World Before Darwin

This section looks at how Darwin's predecessors saw the natural world as static and immutable, and had no real understanding of the mechanisms by which species could adapt or change over time. It provides an introduction to the exhibition by exploring attitudes to the natural world before Darwin. An antique display case filled with mammal, reptile and bird skeletons evokes the scientific landscape of the early 19th century.

Skeleton case from the 'World Before Darwin' section of the exhibition
Skeleton case from the 'World Before Darwin' section of the exhibition.
Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Young Naturalist

Darwin's family heritage and early life through letters, photographs and personal items is explored in this section. Darwin's passionate pursuit of naturalism and geology secured him a berth on HMS Beagle. The Life and Work of Charles Darwin, a video biography of Darwin, narrated by his great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, introduces visitors to the political, social, and scientific climates of 19th century England.

Left: Microscope, similar to that used by Charles Darwin. Right: Magnifying glass, 1800's, similar to that used by Charles Darwin.
Left: Microscope, similar to that used by Charles Darwin. Collection of the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Right: Magnifying glass, 1800s, similar to that used by Charles Darwin. Photos: Jason McCarthy.

A Trip Around the World

This section looks at Darwin's trip on the HMS Beagle, including: Darwin receiving the invitation to join the voyage; his official work to explore the landscape of areas in South America, making scientific observations and collecting specimens; the ship, HMS Beagle, its Captain and the equipment and materials Darwin selected to take with him on his journey; and how Darwin's work on the journey started to change his thinking about the world and evolution.

Model replica of the HMS Beagle
Model replica of the HMS Beagle (1/60 actual size). The HMS Beagle was a very small vessel, 90 feet long. The poop cabin Darwin shared with two other men during the day measured just 10 feet by 11 feet —and part of it was taken up by a mast. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

The Idea Takes Shape

Once back in London, Darwin refined his theories and marshaled the evidence to support them, but he also struggled painfully with the implications of evolution and avoided publication for many years. Darwin's personal notebooks and letters and an exploration of his early experimentation illustrate both his developing theory and his close-knit family.

Model of a Galapàgos Duncan Island Tortoise (saddleback)
Model of a Galapàgos Duncan Island Tortoise (saddleback). The tortoises from each island were slightly different. From looking at their shells, Darwin reported that the colony's vice governor 'could at once tell from which island any one was brought'. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

A Life's Work

A recreation of Darwin's primary workspace at Down House, where he lived for most of his life, illustrates Darwin's ongoing fascination with the natural world. It covers the time following the publication of the On the Origin of Species, as well as later publications such as The Descent of Man, and looks at Darwin's daily life and routines at Down House in researching and writing his works.

An elaborate reproduction of Charles Darwin's study at Down House.
An elaborate reproduction of Charles Darwin's study at Down House.
Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Evolution Today

Darwin's theories form the bedrock for contemporary evolutionary research. This section explores modern discoveries that have enhanced and enriched Darwin's original perspectives.

Pigeons in a display case
Birds on display include all types of pigeons Darwin raised at Down House. All the research Darwin undertook in 40 years at Down House revolved around a single grand theme — evolution by natural selection. There are about 200 named breeds and those Darwin raised provided him insight into the workings of selection.
Photo: Jason McCarthy.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

A stunning display of orchids allows visitors to experience the plants which intrigued Darwin in his later life. He was interested in why the shape, size, colour and fragrance of these plants varied around the world according to their habitat.