Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums

By Culture24 Reporter | 28 January 2014

Even Darwin cracked a few eggs. On a rare tour, curiosities from Cambridge aim to inspire wonderment

A photo of the skeleton of a dodo
Muggletonian Print: System According to the Holy Scriptures (original drawings made in 1846). Printed by Baxter. G; Drawn by Frost, Isaac; Engraved by Chubb and Son© The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge
Even Charles Darwin’s judgement was occasionally imperfect. His Tinamou Egg, collected on the voyage of the Beagle during the 1830s, suffered a cracked shell after its finder chose a box too small for it.

“This exhibition is not just about our ‘treasures’,” explains Professor Nick Thomas, the co-curator of Discoveries and the Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, no less.

“We have deliberately selected works of art, artefacts, specimens, documents and images that allow us to reflect on diverse acts of discovery."

A photo of an upright dodo
Dodo (composite skeleton found circa 1870). A rare example of the extinct bird, this Dodo skeleton is a composite from the material collected from Mauritius by Sir Edward Newton during the 1870s and sent to his brother Alfred Newton, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University© Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge
One of only 16 collected on the Beagle, this egg – rediscovered by a museum volunteer in 2009 – is the only one from the trip to have survived. And it is one of dozens of unusual exhibits visiting London from Cambridge, many of which are leaving their home collection for the first time.

"They vary from sculptures or drawings representing artistic breakthroughs to paintings recording hazardous conditions at the Poles," says Thomas. "We have telescopes that enabled the skies to be studied and new stars seen.

“What might be a scholarly resource to one person may for another be aesthetically arresting. It may be, simply, magical.”

Partly capitalising on the current trend for cabinets of curiosities, this is also about the pleasures of looking and wondering, with ancient fossils, Inuit sculptures, a dodo skeleton and, in an invention onlookers might ultimately feel like running off with, one of the latest digital instruments used to search for sub-atomic particles in frozen Antarctica.

One of them actually predates The Origin of Species by 16 years. Hugh Edwin Strickland’s Chart of Bird Classification had long been rolled up in storage, but has recently been conserved and mounted, allowing its debut display in public.

Another great explorer, Reginald Punnett, lives on through a rabble of butterflies from a colour plate of the book, Mimicry in Butterflies, with which he helped pave the way for modern genetics.

“The exhibits on display lead double, if not multiple lives,” observes Thomas.

“They are not just museum pieces spanning millennia, but living objects used for teaching and research that have changed our understanding of the world — and will continue to do so in ways we cannot yet imagine.

“They are used, studied and explored daily, offering new insight and revelations about the world around us.”

A photo of a crater on a mould of brown earth
James Nasmyth, Copernicus (mid-19th century). Chalk on paper. Nasmyth was a Scottish engineer and inventor. After retiring from business in 1856, he built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope and made detailed observations of the Moon. A crater on the Moon is named after him© Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
These items, says Thomas, “could only come from Cambridge.”

“Our collections are exceptionally rich, but also unusual and even quirky.

“For more than 200 years our museums have accumulated every imaginable kind of artefact, art work, device and specimen.

"These discoveries takes us from Darwin to DNA, and Captain Scott to the exploration of space.”

Scott is artistically portrayed by Edward Wilson, a Cambridge scientist and artist who accompanied him on his Discovery Antartic Expedition between 1901 and 1904. Scott and Wilson died at the South Pole a decade later, but would have enjoyed the Sufi Snakes and Ladders board which is an anthropological highlight, and puzzled at the awry prints of the Muggletonians – a religious sect who favoured biblical statements above Newtonian theories, believing that the sun and moon revolved around the earth.

“This exhibition challenges us to think about the notion and meaning of ‘discovery’,” concludes Thomas.

“It’s not just epoch-making scientific or artistic discoveries, but everyday discoveries — and discoveries that are passed from generation to generation and renewed afresh each time.

"Together they present a microcosm of the limitless notion of discovery through time. They represent man’s quest to find his place within the world and far beyond, and also his triumphs, frustrations and wrong turns.”

  • Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums is at Two Temple Place from January 31 - April 27 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a series of archaeological exhibits in a brown box
Woodwardian Collection: Bones, Teeth &c of Fishes. Gift from Dr John Woodward (1665–1728). From the collection of Agostino Scilla (1629–1700)© Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge
A photo of a box full of archaeological remains
Woodwardian Collection: Recent Bodies. Gift from Dr John Woodward (1665–1728). From the collection of Agostino Scilla (1629–1700)© Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge
A photo of a circular time-keeping contraption
Triwizard Tournament. Digital Optical module (DOM) for IceCube Neutrino telescope at South Pole (presented 2010)© Scott Polar Research Institute
A photo of a pair of wooden goggles
Snow goggles. Wooden Inuit goggles. Used during the Discovery expedition (1901–04)© Scott Polar Research Institute
A photo of an ancient brown egg with a crack on it against a white background
Tinamou Egg. Found by Charles Darwin on the Beagle Voyage (1831–1836). Previously thought to be lost and rediscovered in 2009 by a museum volunteer, this tinamou egg is the only surviving egg from the Beagle Voyage. A crack in the egg was caused by Darwin himself© Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge
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