8 April 2008

Darwin: the evolution revolution

is on at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Beagleblog roving reporter Glendon Mellow kindly went to review the exhibition for us. Now by way of thanks go visit his gallery and blog. Glendon writes:

Posters of a man in black and white, a green iguana, and bright pink orchids abound in transit shelters across Toronto. Darwin: The Evolution Revolution exhibit is on at the R.O.M., my hometown's museum that has caused so much buzz in the past year after being "crystallized". To introduce myself, my name is Glendon Mellow, and I am honoured and thrilled to be writing this review for The Beagle Project Blog. I am an artist in awe of science who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and I blog at The Flying Trilobite. I was approached by Humble Woodcutter of The Free Range Academy to write this review for The Beagle Project Blog. Pictures were not allowed in the exhibit, so I have done my best to provide.

The Exhibit
By following a chronological look at Darwin's life and achievements, the exhibit seduces and beguiles using only facts. He was an ordinary man, albeit with the foibles, interests and intelligence that made it possible for him to think deeply on the natural world, and much time is spent on this at the beginning. The exhibit pulls no punches with evolution by natural selection later in. In that matter-of-fact, writ-large-with-no-punctuation way that museums do so well, evolution as a proven fact is stated again and again. As it should be.

As a visual kind of guy, let me give you the rough sketch of what the exhibit feels like. The exhibit is below ground, under an overhang in the R.O.M.'s Staircase of Wonders; the overhang is perfectly suited, as it displays "Mammal Weaponry" with everything from antlers to a narwhal tusk. The main portion of the exhibit features darkly stained wooden glass cabinets. Small curios featuring antique magnifying glasses of interesting construction dot the exhibit, each enlarging some beetle or hummingbird or plant or fossil. The piece that most struck me with a shiver of Darwin's presence included a small drawing of Leptura quadrifasciata in a letter to his cousin, inscribed, "the insect is more beautiful than this drawing". (I could go on and on about an 1840 lithograph by George Scharf of a Toxodon platensis skull fossil, but I really shouldn't.)To me, the importance of information in a museum is paramount, and this exhibit delivers. You can catch brief titles, or spend a couple of hours looking over everything. As I have often observed at the Toronto Zoo, it is amazing how some people have opinions on displays without first reading them. At the diorama of the Galapagos seashore, which features robustly stuffed marine iguanas and a couple of green iguanas, I over heard one young man ask his girlfriend, "Those real?" to which she replied, "Yeah, but they're like dinosaur-age iguanas". They then moved forward to read the placards.
There are so many things I did not know: I had no idea he discovered Megatherium; was related to the Wedgewoods; or argued his Captain about the immorality of slavery and was almost left on shore because of it. I hope the curators are quite proud of how this exhibit came together; it is a treasure. Live frogs, an iguana, tortoises, orchids, venus fly-traps, fossils of Pleistocene megafauna, skeletons of bats, primates and the homology of forelimbs feed the eyes and entice the curious.

"I wish this guy was still alive; I'd introduce him to God."
One stomping teenage girls' commentary notwithstanding, the people I observed seemed to be curious and enjoying themselves. There are five short movies playing and three were well-attended, the last two being grouped so close together their sound overlapped. After hearing palaeontologist and trilobite-rockstar Richard Fortey say something to the effect of biodiversity being "…all the spiritual present in the world I need," I overheard one patron utter, "Works for me." A nearby wall about current controversies remained well-attended. The video featuring Fortey was on a vertical flatscreen on a pillar near the large evolution by natural selection exhibit. It was set at an average person's height, with the commenters' addressing the viewers on their own level. It featured Francisco Ayala, Eugenie Scott, Niles Eldridge, Georgia Dunston and Kenneth Miller. The natural selection exhibit is clear and easy to follow. Evolution has been observed in the lab amongst bacteria, which reproduce quickly. The connection of slower, larger reproducers from eohippus to the modern horse is clearly made.

A child's perspective
On this visit, my wife and I brought our six-year old nephew, who for the sake of his anonymity I shall refer to as Obi-Wan. An easily overlooked workbook is at the entrance, (in both official languages, mais oui) urging children to become Darwin's assistant.
The booklet was terrific, starting Obi out by investigating the two tortoises and comparing their features. Many times our nephew Obi crouched down on the floor after figuring out what the answer was that he needed to finish another section. We received a lot of curious looks and some comments from passers-by. When Obi was filling out some true or false answers and he guessed at one, my wife pointed out that he shouldn't guess, as he did not yet have any evidence. He was incredibly excited when he found the answer, and I feel that lesson may stick. At another point, Obi was moved to draw abruptly, and asked to borrow my sketchbook so he could draw the dwarf armadillo on display next to the glyptodont. He spent about five minutes leaning against the angled placard, and drew this brilliant armadillo, starting with its detailed toes.A video screen found in a few areas deftly illustrated natural selection better than my bungled attempt. It features bright orange and green bugs zipping around a background of green leaves. As the bird (clicking a button), Obi clicked the obvious orange bugs out of existence –almost! Then the screen turned the shade of orange as the orange bugs! The green ones are being eaten! The kids' area at the end was almost an afterthought, even with their version of The Beagle.

The exhibit is well-displayed and rigorous in its main points; Darwin was a normal, decent person; evolution by natural selection is true and makes sense; and though controversy remains, the natural world is deserving of the wonder Charles Darwin gave it. I highly recommend it, and hope it is indicative of the pursuit of displaying scientific truths about the natural world that we should expect from institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum.

When I asked my nephew what he thought the skeleton of the chimpanzee hanging from the tree was, he studied it and asked, "a person?"

"Yeah, close!" I replied.

Many thanks Glendon, Mrs Mellow and Obi-Wan especially for the Flying Trilobite and Obi-Wan original art. A cup of tea and slice of cake awaits aboard when we get Beagle across the Atlantic. Bring your paints. Now someone go and commission a socking great painting from Glendon.


nunatak said...

Fabulous, Glendon! I felt like I was really there. I'm so looking forward to the exhibition coming to London. Just a note: the caption about the beetle in the image ("Darwin's drawing is more beautiful than this insect") is the reverse of the caption reported in the text ("the insect is more beautiful than this drawing"). Thanks for guest-posting on the Beagle Project Blog, we hope to have you back soon.

The Flying Trilobite said...

Thanks nunatak!

The reason for the switch in the caption under the beetle is that the one here in the review is my own crude scribbling, and not the little lovely by the Man Chuck D. himself.


Brilliant! I had no idea he discovered Megatherium either! My prehistoric mammal obsessed sprog will be agog. Wonderful sketches. Could the kids climb on the replica of the HMS Beagle on display?

The Flying Trilobite said...

Climbing and spinning the wheel were encouraged!

Michael D. Barton, FCD said...

Great review! I've heard that the exhibit will be in San Diego after it's London stay... that's probably where I will see it...