"Darwin" Review - At Field Museum Chicago

Darwin, young and old

In 1858, after a twenty- year delay, Charles Darwin chose to share his theories of evolution and the world has never been the same.   The Field Museum Chicago presents the most in-depth exhibition ever presented about the man, the scientist and the theory.   The exhibition will be in place until January 1, 2008.   Go to see it.  Allow a lot of time, probably two hours, and bring a light wrap.

The exhibition was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York in collaboration with The Field Museum, Chicago; the Museum of Science, Boston; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Natural History Museum, London.    Olivier Rieppel, chair of the Field’s Geology Department and a member of the exhibition’s organizing team comments that, “Never before has this much ‘Darwinia’ been brought together”.   Chicago is the exhibitions’ third stop.   It has been shown in New York and Boston and will go to Toronto before opening in London in 2009, when it will coincide with the 200 anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150 -year celebration of the publication of “The Origin of the Species”.

What Darwin saw in the Galapagos Islands

The exhibition was so fascinating that the security guards got to be our friends; we were there so long.   After the chance to view the microscope that Darwin used, the exhibit explains Darwin’s time; a time when there was a strong belief that species had always existed as they were and would continue the same way.   It was interesting to learn that Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was among only a few individuals that began to think about the evolution of the species.

Log from HMS Beagle, tree-early idea for "Origin of the Species"

It is easy to be engaged as the displays of personal belongings, photograph, manuscripts and letters, and hundreds of specific specimens, including live horned frogs, a green iguana and delicate orchids are fascinating and beautiful.   With notes on his personal life and times, his historic trip around the world, the dramatic development of his scientific theory and finally, the way his ideas have shaped our lives today, one sees a complex and remarkable Charles Darwin. The multiple forms of presenting the varied materials appealed to children and adults alike.

Darwin collected beetles

Darwin was born into a wealthy and prominent family and pictures illustrate both the Darwin family, his fathers, and the Wedgewood family, his mother’s. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an esteemed individual who preceded his grandson in thinking about evolution.   He had unusual ideas for his time and found slavery aversive, believed in education for women, and favored the American and French Revolutions.   He was a member of the Lunar Society, a group who called themselves “lunaticks” and included: James Watt, and had Benjamin Franklin and Carolus Linnaeus as guest speakers.

Model, HMS Beagle

Charles had little interest in school but he was a collector and observer of plants, insects, and rocks.   As a member of a prominent family it was necessary for him to make a place for himself in society. He was sent to study medicine at Edinburgh University but had little interest in this pursuit and next attended Cambridge studying for the Clergy. Then, when he was 22, an amateur naturalist, studying for a career in the clergy, he was offered a nonpaying position as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831.  

It was a voyage that would change Darwin’s life, shake nineteenth-century Europe to its core, and lay the foundations of all modern biology.   Expected to last two years, the trip took five, and Charles returned, age 29, well known and popular, because of all the specimens that he gathered on his voyage and sent back to England. It was now time to marry and letters and pictures telling of this period reveal both his personality and that of Emma Wedgewood, his cousin, who became his wife in 1839.

Replica of Darwin's home

There is a wonderful film on Darwin’s life and work narrated by his great great grandson, Randal Keynes, that brings many of the individual exhibits to life. We learn that after a short time in London, Emma and Charles and their first two children moved to Down House in a tiny village outside London where Charles lived and worked for the next forty years.   Eventually, they had ten children, two of whom died.   We see the kernel of Darwin’s ideas on evolution in the original sketch of a tree.   When in 1844, Darwin wrote an essay on evolution by natural selection, he hid the manuscript under the stairs, instructing his wife to publish it after his death.   However, a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace arrived describing a theory very much like his own and Charles and Alfred came to an agreement to present their papers together at the Linnaean Society in 1858.    When the book, “The Origin of Species” was published the next year, it sold out immediately, and yes, there was the strong public reaction he feared as his ideas conflicted with the religious beliefs of the time.

The turtles of the Galapagos

Many of the unique animals Darwin observed were available to be viewed in exquisite detail, including live South American horned frogs and a green iguana, mounted birds, amphibians, insects, and much more.   Darwin’s letters, notebooks, and personal belongings paint an intimate portrait of a man as devoted to his family as he was to nature, and a scientist whose fascination with plants and animals led him almost inevitably to the concept of evolution and the process—natural selection—by which it works.   Darwin’s theories continue to hold up under the light of modern genetics and molecular biology and his work is fundamental to individuals fighting swiftly-changing viruses, decoding DNA, analyzing fossil record, or working to save endangered species.

Orchid room and security guard

At the end of the exhibition, there is a display of live and photographic orchids, a beautiful and diverse plant family that fascinated Darwin. Studying their nectar-producing organs and the shapes of the insects and birds that pollinated them helped Darwin understand how plants and animals evolved together, each adapting to the “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”    Go see “Darwin” and emerge with a new view of the man and his times and a better understanding of his ideas and their impact. “There is a grandeur in this view of life,…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Table filled with experiments

The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, on CTA bus lines #6, #12, and #146, and close to other routes and the Metra electric and South Shore lines.   An indoor parking garage is located just steps from the main entrance.   For more travel information, call the Illinois Department of Transportation, 312-368-4636, or the RTA Travel Center Hotline, (312) 836-7000.

Tickets to Darwin include Museum admission - $19 for adults, $14 for seniors and students with ID, $9 for children 4-11.   Discounts available for Chicago residents.   Visit www.fieldmuseum.org or call 312-922-9410.   To purchase tickets call 866-FIELD-03 (866-343-5303), visit www.fieldmuseum.org, or come to the Field Museum box office. Special rates available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more.   Call Group Sales office toll-free at 888-FIELD-85 (888-343-5385) The Field Museum is offering a variety of public programs to complement the exhibition- visit www.fieldmuseum.org or call 312-665-7400.

Photos: Deborah Munro, Field Museum

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