Darwin200 Celebration Plans Revealed At Natural History Museum

By Jon Pratty | 05 June 2008
photo shows a large group of people in a great hall listening to a man standinh at a lectern

Photo - Lord Rees makes his address. One of Britain's most distinguished scientists, he is Astronomer Royal, and President of Britain's oldest science body, The Royal Society, founded in 1660. © NHM

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge was joined by Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society as Darwin200 celebration plans were revealed at the Natural History Museum on Tuesday June 3 2008.

"Charles Darwin remains highly relevant to all of us - especially in view of the environmental challenges we face today," said the Minister. "We're delighted to be supporting Darwin200 and we're working across government to maximise the opportunities the celebrations will bring."

"Darwin200 promises to bring better knowledge of our past, and better understanding of the society we live in today. In some ways Darwin's genius helped shape our present-day attitudes to diversity."

photo of a woman making a speech at a microphone

Margaret Hodge speaking in front of the statue of Charles Darwin, relocated at the heart of the great hall of the NHM specially for Darwin200 year celebrations. © NHM

Darwin200 is an 18 month national programme of events celebrating Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas and their impact, with the focus of activity centred around the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 12 2009.

Darwin’s theory – that life has evolved by natural selection over millions of years – revolutionised our understanding of the world and our place within it, paving the way for seeing humans as part of nature's web of life.

Medicine, agriculture, politics and art are just a few of the areas that have been profoundly influenced by his ideas. Today, evolution is at the heart of some of our hottest issues, from bird flu and MRSA to equality and how we educate our children.

Lord Rees, in an erudite and amusing speech, painted a compelling picture of how important Darwin is to all scientists, appraising his reputation in relation to Newton, the other great British scientific genius.

"Darwin was an engaging and admirable character. He had a fulfilled life: adventurous early on; five years on the Beagle; and then serene and productive decades among his family in Down House," said Lord Rees.

"In contrast, Newton wasn't a man you'd want to meet: he was solitary and unbalanced when young, vain and vindictive in his later years."

"Darwin's second attraction is the accessibility of his ideas. Newton wrote in Latin, and his maths was a challenge to the greatest scholars of his time. Darwin in contrast, is neither arcane nor impenetrable."

"His work, like all great science, is based on hard slog and a focus on detail. But it's distilled into a broad vision, conveyed in elegant prose."

"The Origin of Species closes with these famous lines: 'There is a grandeur in this view of life ... whilst this planet has been cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, forms most wonderful have been and are being evolved.'"

Photo of a broken part of a stone carved with patterns including two discs in which are cross shapes splaying out towards the edges of the circles

Debates spawned by the celebrations are certain to cover Darwin's innovative ideas, but they're also likely to allow discussion of alternative views of evolution and creation too. © NHM

Darwin200 highlights

The Darwin200 programme offers a wide range of events for everyone around the country and many more are still being planned. It's not just about the history of ideas - the present day is examined too: from spying on garden snails for evolutionary clues, to a two storey-high interactive Darwin curiosity cabinet.

The celebrations also cover two other Darwin anniversaries; this year it's 150 years since Darwin and Wallace announced the theory of evolution (July 1 2008) and next year it'll be 150 years since 'On the Origin of Species' was published, on November 24 2009.

Organisations involved in Darwin200 range from museums, science centres and research institutes to theatre and dance companies, composers and even knitting groups. There's lots more about all the events on the Darwin200 website - www.darwin200.org

A photograph of a decorated ceiling with one section left blank.

Looking straight upwards - this where is a major art commission will be revealed at the Natural History Museum in 2009 - Darwin's Canopy. © NHM

The Natural History Museum is commissioning a new permanent artwork inspired by Darwin for the ceiling of one of it's galleries. Turner Prize winners Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread are among ten leading artists shortlisted for the commission.

Their ideas for the space can be seen in a temporary exhibition from June 3 2008 until September 2008. The winning commission will be unveiled on Darwin’s 200th anniversary, February 12, 2009.

photo of a man looking upwards at some circular mirrors

Richard Wentworth with his proposal Out of the Corner of The Eye (for Darwin) © NHM

Also at the Natural History Museum from November 2008 to March 2009 a major exhibition will retrace Darwin's life-changing journey aboard HMS Beagle. Visitors will be able to follow the clues that helped his ideas to develop; pulling together rare personal belongings, fossils and zoological specimens he collected on his travels.

The exhibition concludes with an exploration of how evolution is important in understanding the ways infectious diseases keep changing, as we attempt to control their spread.

Darwin200 around Britain

Many partnerships and events are still being planned, but already standout projects have been announced, taking place right across the 18 month celebration period.

The Open University's Evolution MegaLab project launches in April 2009. It's planned to be a fascinating pan-European exploration of evolution as it happens - on the ground - in real life.

This mass observation experiment will ask young people all over Europe to record information about 'banded' snails in gardens and parks. Participants can enter their observations into an online database, building a picture of evolutionary change in response to climate warming and variations in predation pressure over the last 80 years. Users will see the results in real time. There's already some background info at the project website - www.evolutionmegalab.org.

2009 plans in Cambridge see the Fitzwilliam Museum opening a groundbreaking cross-disciplinary exhibition called Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts.

The show, from June 16 to October 4 2009, marries science and art, exploring the importance of visual imagery in the development of Darwin's ideas and the impact of his theories on artists of his day.

Works by renowned artists such as Landseer, Turner, Degas, Monet and Cézanne from collections in the US and Europe will be joined by drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, dramatic taxidermy and fossils in a unique presentation of the interaction between art and natural science in the nineteenth century.

The Great Reading Adventure from January to March 2009, will see 140,000 free copies of an accessible new book about Darwin distributed free of charge to schools, libraries, reading groups, businesses and members of the public in Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Shrewsbury.

It's all about encouraging everyone to read the same book at the same time. The book itself is novel - it's a graphic biography of Darwin's life, being written by Eugene Byrne and illustrated by Simon Gurr.

Rvolution: Severn Project 2009 is an Autumn 2009 extravaganza taking place along a long stretch of the River Severn in Shropshire and Worcestershire.

Planned highlights include a nine metre-high interactive puppet of Charles Darwin and his Cabinet of Species, part of a large-scale outdoor spectacular with sideshows, music, dance and installations combining elements of a Victorian exhibition, a funfair, Jurassic Park, the Garden of Eden and Conan Doyle's Lost World.

Darwin's home at Downe in Kent and the 10km square area of historic countryside that he used as his open-air laboratory will be the United Kingdom's 2009 nomination for World Heritage Status.

Down House is where Darwin did many experiments while developing his theory. Located in the London Borough of Bromley, the bid area contains his home, garden and grounds at Down House, the neighbouring villages of Downe and Cudham, and the surrounding countryside.
More details at www.darwinatdowne.co.uk.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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