Charles Darwin 200th Birthday Exhibitions

August 1, 2009
Conrad Martens, Sydney (detail), 1836, watercolour with scraping- out
Conrad Martens, Sydney (detail), 1836, watercolour with scraping- out

This year marks Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday, and exactly 150 years since he published his world-changing book, The Origin of Species. Predictably, the entire planet has been overwhelmed with Darwin exhibitions and publications. I once read that Jesus Christ was the most biographed individual of all time, with Leonardo da Vinci in second place. By now, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin must be giving them some stiff competition.

When the great scientist died in 1882, the Germans were the first to call the nineteenth century, “Darwin’s century”. The British, less inclined to hyperbole, were more ambiguous in their feelings for the man who had given us the controversial theory of evolution. Nevertheless, they were not to be outdone, and buried him with tremendous pomp in Westminster Abbey. Darwin, for his part, had only wanted a modest ceremony in the small hamlet of Down in Kent, where he had lived quietly with his family. If his wishes were overruled it was because by the end if his life he had become a universal icon.

For his acolytes, Darwin’s doctrines represented the ultimate triumph of science over superstition, the path of progress Britain had to pursue if its glory were to be sustained. To his detractors, he remained the heretic who claimed we were descended from monkeys rather than Adam and Eve. If religion were to be undermined in this way, went the argument, then morality would surely be the next casualty.

If we haven’t descended completely into anarchy over the past hundred years, neither has Darwin’s triumph impeded the growth of religious sentiment. His ideas about the mutability of species and the survival of the fittest have left the realm of biology and been adapted for social and cultural purposes. Not all of these uses have been congenial, as in the theories of ‘degeneration’ that the Jewish philosopher, Max Nordau unwittingly served up to the Nazis. So too the poisonous doctrine of economic rationalism engineered by F.A.Hayek, but used to devastating effect by Margaret Thatcher.

On the other hand, evolution has been the ultimate counter to revolution – the utopian idea that the world must be changed for the better by violent upheaval. Despite all the carnage of the past century, there is no denying that a large part of the world has made steady – evolutionary – progress towards health and happiness

This is a long introduction for a show that I’ve taken an inordinate time to review. Darwin – Voyages and ideas that shook the world, at the Australian National Maritime Museum, has been running for the past few months, and will go for another three weeks. The State Library of NSW has also held a small Darwin show this year, while there is another to follow soon at the Ian Potter Art Museum at Melbourne University (12 August-21November).

My tardiness was not due to the nature of the show, but rather the magnitude of the topic. Darwin is such a fascinating figure that one can never read enough about him. As well as his own key books, the essential Darwin reading list would include Janet Browne’s masterful two-volume biography, and Stephen Jay Gould’s essays.

The most recent addition to the list is Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada, which has the unusual distinction of being both scholarly and highly readable. It is one of the tragedies of academic life that so many books are written in idiotic jargon and padded out with theoretical irrelevancies. McCalman demonstrates this need not be the case. Darwin’s Armada begins with the salient moment of Darwin’s funeral service in Westminster Abbey, and goes on to explore the separate voyages undertaken by the master and his disciples – Joseph Hooker, T.H.Huxley and Alfred Wallace. It makes the intellectual adventure of evolution as gripping as a romance of the high seas.

McCalman has also collaborated with the ANMM on a conference, and the publication that accompanies this exhibition: In the Wake of the Beagle: Science in the Southern Oceans from the Age of Darwin. This book incorporates the conference papers, and serves as a catalogue for the show. If it does not resemble a conventional exhibition catalogue with its neat checklist of works, it must be said that Darwin – Voyages and ideas’, is a more an exercise in education than aesthetic pleasure

To a certain extent this is only to be expected. The ANMM is a venue that concentrates on items of material culture rather than works of art, and tries to make those items accessible to the widest possible audience. This means that it would be foolish to attempt a critical appreciation of most of the objects on display, which include watercolours, prints and drawings; maps and documents; scale models of ships; a life-sized re-creation Darwin’s cabin on The Beagle; plants, both living and dried; artifacts from Australia, New Guinea and Tierra del Fuego; and a case of crustaceans.

There is also a lot of text to read, plus extracts from Darwin’s writings, accessible at the touch of a button. The show is punctuated with a couple of ambient projections that show animals and birds, or clouds moving through the sky. In the final room there is a video presentation in which Barry Jones, Robin Williams and Maryanne Demasi tell us what an interesting fellow Darwin was. The lasting impression is of a show put together by a committee, incorporating a bit of everything. Like so many museum exhibitions nowadays it mixes the time-honoured method of displaying objects in glass cases, with a dash of audio-visual, interactive hocus pocus.

The overall effect is not especially attractive, but the ANMM’s temporary exhibition space is not conducive to great presentations. It always feels like one is viewing something in the cargo hold.

To enjoy the show one must forget about the décor and concentrate on the exhibits. Probably the most fascinating object is a Patagonian suit of armor, made from seven layers of horse hide, which apparently didn’t manage to deflect a bullet. There is nothing exceptional among the rest of the artifacts, although there will be experts who will disagree

More to the point are the pictures, scale models and reconstructions, which act as aids to the imagination. As always with shows that celebrate the lives of early voyagers, it is amazing to realise how small these ships were, how cramped and uncomfortable the living conditions. Even though The Beagle was one of the best-equipped ships that ever left England, it was a tiny vessel by modern standards. Darwin had to sleep in a hammock with his head – or was it his feet? – in a dresser from which one of the drawers had been removed. He shared this shoebox, which doubled as his library and laboratory, with the fourteen-year-old midshipman, Philip Gidley King.

Apart from Darwin’s own detailed narrative in Voyage of the Beagle, the best records of the journey of 1831-36 are to be found in the watercolours and drawings of various artists, chiefly Augustus Earle, who was with the ship from 1831-32, until ill health forced him to disembark in Montevideo; and Conrad Martens, who travelled with Darwin from 1833-34, until there was no money to pay his wages. Both of these artists have taken on a disproportionate significance in Australian art history by the sheer fact of their presence in the country in the early part of the nineteenth century. The difference is that Earle had already finished with Australia by the time he joined The Beagle, whereas Martens had his Australian years ahead of him

Although Martens would leave the biggest impression, Earle is by far the more engaging artist – more versatile, more interested in the human drama of his surroundings; possessed of more liberal views on how the British should govern their colonial possessions. Martens remained essentially a landscapist, although his sketchbooks are full of small social vignettes. None of his contributions to this exhibition are memorable as works of art, although they convey a vivid impression of the rough seas and stormy weather the voyagers endured in South America.

There are other works too – by Philip Parker King, the father of Darwin’s cabin-mate, who had captained an earlier survey voyage to Patagonia where he made a series of lively watercolours. There are also works by Syms Covington, Darwin’s man-servant, immortalised in Roger McDonald’s novel of 1998, Mr Darwin’s Shooter.

Perhaps the most evocative of all images is an ink sketch by Lewis Roper Fitzmaurice, who travelled on a later voyage of The Beagle, to Australia in 1837-43. His drawing, Messrs Fitzmaurice and Keys Dancing for their Lives, shows the two British sailors doing a high-stepping jig under the bemused gaze of a group of spear-wielding Aborigines who watch them from a nearby promontory. It records an amazing piece of quick thinking. The dancing had a disarming effect on the hostile tribesmen who put down their spears and watched this peculiar ritual. It is one of the rare occasions in history when the Europeans danced for the natives.

 

 

 

Darwin – Voyages and ideas that shook the world, Australian National Maritime Museum, March 20 2009 – August 23, 2009

Charles Darwin Down Under 1836, State Library of NSW, April 4-July 26, 2009


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 1, 2009