21st century heads of Charles Darwin fill busts with ant colonies and DNA data

By Culture24 Reporter | 03 February 2014

The Grant Museum has challenged artists and scientists to bring them the head of Charles Darwin


An empty plinth where Darwin’s bust used to stand, left when the Grant Museum moved to its current home in 2011, has given rise to an open competition for students and staff at the College’s prolific Institute of Making to create a replacement.

One of them takes the theory of evolution as inspiration. Using a nutrient-enriched gel usually used as a habitat for ants being studied in zero-gravity conditions, the skull is filled with ants whose network of tunnels gradually alter the look of their cranial chamber.

Another recreates Darwin in crocheted, floating form, his beard carrying sparks of insight, while one entry is made from layered theatrical lighting filters.

Perhaps the most complex is a joint entry between two visionaries who have sculpted a miniature Darwin bust USB stick, carrying the digital Darwin’s data encoded into nucleotides ready to be stored in DNA.

A photo of a glowing dark blue and black head of a bearded scientist on top of a plinth
James Mould, Untitled. Two sheets of clear acrylic plastic, vacuum formed to shape, hinged wooden box for the base, bolt, washer and nut, blue LED battery, toggle switch and wiring, clear silicone adhesive, three litres of gel-based ant habitat/nutrients, Harvester ants© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
Suzanne Ruddy, a Teaching Fellow in Structural and Molecular Biology, unwittingly sculpted the path for this heady contest.

“My initial proposal to the Institute of Making, to print a replica Darwin bust for our empty plinth, evolved rapidly into an exciting interdisciplinary competition and exhibition,” she says.

“It is appropriate, considering Darwin’s competitive theories, which involved survival of the fittest. I hope he would be pleased.”

“Our bust is a standard historical object, but to see him recreated using the most modern technologies, and the imaginations of people from all the disciplines to take their own spin on it, is genuinely inspiring,” says Jack Ashby, the manager of the museum.

“The bust has a bit of history – it is part of the Grant Museum’s collection, and as such when we moved into our current home we took him with us.

“The biologists in the Darwin Building were very sorry to see him go. This project will create a new Darwin for them, and will also result in an unusual exhibition, through a competition.

“The winning result will be displayed in the empty window of the Darwin Building – on the site where he lived on returning from The Beagle voyage – bringing Darwin back home.”

In timely fashion, the exhibition will open on Darwin’s 205th birthday. LaToyah, a huge eight-axis robot arm at The Bartlett School of The Built Environment, has also been deployed to carve a full-size Darwin bust for academics to use.

“This is quite a sight to see,” says Ashby, calling it “the milled Darwin”.

“It’s a fantastic copy, but not identical to the original. He looks smoother and somehow digital – a much more 21st Century Darwin.”

  • Darwin (or) Bust is at the Grant Museum of Zoology from February 12 – April 2 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a sculpture within a square showing a man with a white beard
Andrew Breeson made Darwin from a paperback book, sculpting him out of the material embodiment of his ideas – The Origin of Species© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
A photo of a knitted head of a man with a white beard
Cristina Amati made Darwin's Floating Head out of wool mix and cashmere yarn, crochet hooks and pillow stuffing. He is pensive, fatigued and indefatigable - a floating head of wisdom and inquiry© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
A photo of a white bust of a man with a beard
Graeme Smith and Tom Catling, Charles Darwin USB Flash Drive. PLA, 10ml Acrylic, Black Card, 8Gb Memory Stick. A USB stick embedded within Darwin's head encodes his 3D likeness in a format ready to be stored into DNA© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
A photo of a white bust of a man with a beard against a black background
Josephine McNally, Darwin Reflected. Mirror/wood. On one level this sculpture works as an interactive device – reflecting back whoever looks into it. On another, it is about seeing who we are© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
A photo of a sculpture of a man with a white beard against a black background
Darwin bust. The 3D printing was completed by B>MADE, Bartlett Manufacturing and Design Exchange at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL© UCL, Institute of Making / Robert Eagle
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I like the ingenious concept by Andrew Breeson of replacing the previous conventional bust with a modern approach that includes a image in book form and reminder of Darwin's seminal work.
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