18 February 2012

Bringing Darwin into the 21st Century

Charles Darwin lived much of his adult life at Down House, the family home he established in Kent. It was where he fine-tuned his theories on natural selection, and where he wrote The Origin of Species, along with several other publications.

But it was also where he and wife Emma raised a large family, where he recreated his father's 'thinking path' and walked it three times a day for 40 years, where he played billiards with the butler, and set up a wooden slide so his children could play on the stairs.

Origin, parked with the croquet mallets
In fact, for many of the family’s years at Down House, Origin sat wrapped in brown paper in a closet under the stairs, with sheets occasionally purloined by the children as drawing paper. Some wonderful examples survive in the Cambridge University Library, one of 15 sources mined by the American Natural History Museum for its Darwin Manuscripts Project.

Down House is also a good example of the evolution of museums. Using funding tied to Darwin's bicentenary in 2009, English Heritage and curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith launched a programme of modernisation, and while she has ongoing targets for improvement, the museum today is a deft mix of Victorian and modern.

My favourite example is the recreation of Darwin’s cabin aboard HMS Beagle – a chart-room he shared with mate John Lort Stokes and 14-year-old midshipman Philip Gidley King. Lort Stokes (profiled for the BBC by relative and HMS Beagle Project chair David Lort-Phillips) would go on to command HMS Beagle for part of her third expedition, a six-year survey of the Australian coast. Draughtsman King – who would become a lifelong friend of Darwin’s – sketched some of the few existing images of the cabin and ship. Good company.

Darwin's cabin recreation, courtesy English Heritage

The ship's cabin at Down House is uncomfortably to scale, contains HMS Beagle artefacts and features a wonderful bit of Victorian technology, a type of ‘Pepper’s ghost’ projecting an image of a young Charles Darwin working at the chart table. He may or may not match your own image of the amateur naturalist, but it’s more effective than mannequins and less annoying than most costumed re-enactors. The ‘ghost’ doesn't have legs, but as Darwin never got his own at sea, perhaps that’s appropriate...

Filmed in 'seasick-cam'. There's also a 2008 video on the Sandwalk 
thinking path at Down House, which is equally disturbing...

Another state-of-the-art feature - and the focus of the 2009 effort - is a digitised archive of Darwin’s notebooks from his five-year voyage. These are accessible in an exhibition dedicated to the Beagle, in a small but well-equipped resource room, and online. Scroll through scans of the actual notebooks or, if Darwin’s scrawl defeats you, access transcribed highlights.

Curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith with some of Down House's hands-on residents

The museum also includes recreations of Darwin’s study and various living rooms, plus modern and Victorian-flavoured interactive displays. The latter chart the scientist’s developing theories, working partnerships, and family life.

As someone with a short attention span, I have to say this was one of the most enjoyable historical museums I’ve been to, with lots to offer children and adults. As part of the team trying to re-imagine the voyage of Darwin, FitzRoy and crew for a modern audience, I'll be looking to Down House's skilled mix of period, new and learning resource for inspiration. Visitor information can be found here.

Upcoming Events: Down House curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith has offered to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for the human side of Charles Darwin at HMS Beagle Project special events later in 2012 – keep an eye out by registering for updates.

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