Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.