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Darwin at the Museum

A drawing of the HMS Beagle Charles Darwin is widely recognized and celebrated as the founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection. His ideas have impacted every branch of the life sciences, as well as geology, paleontology and cosmology. But there is much more to Darwin's work than this one idea. A special exhibition opening Oct. 10 at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman features a complete set of first-editions of Darwin's written works, and sheds light on the man not only as an evolutionary theorist, but also as a global traveler, a geologist, botanist and thinker. "Darwin at the Museum" also will feature maps and illustrations, hand-written manuscripts and letters by Darwin himself, and specimens from museum collections relating both to Darwin's studies and to the research of current museum scientists. The exhibit is a collaborative effort between the museum and the University of Oklahoma Libraries, History of Science Collections. It will be on view through Jan. 18, 2010.

Illustration of birdsWhen Darwin published his famous On the Origin of Species in 1859, he had already published a number of highly respected works featuring his scientific inquiries. From the structure of coral reefs to the expression of emotion in animals, Darwin's insatiable appetite for scientific knowledge led him to delve into a wide variety of research subjects. The wide scope of works he published in his lifetime, numbering some 19 books in addition to numerous papers and monographs, may surprise many museum visitors. "Darwin at the Museum" offers a unique opportunity for the public to view all of Darwin's first editions in one place. The University of Oklahoma Libraries is one of only a handful of institutions in the world that can boast a complete set.

"A lot of people don't realize that originally, Darwin was best known for his work in geology and theology," said Laurie Vitt, curator of reptiles at the museum and co-developer for the exhibition. "There are so many sides of Darwin that people probably are not aware of. One of our goals is to show the comprehensive basis on which he did his work. It's stunning."

Kerry Magruder, curator of OU's History of Science Collections, and co-developer of the exhibition, agrees. "People may come in with a flat picture of who Darwin was," he said, "but viewing all of the books is a great way to see a different side of Darwin. He is known for his work on the origin of species, but most people don't realize that he wrote a book on emotional expression, a book on earthworms, a book on barnacles. People react to the breadth and beauty of his work."

Magruder points out the wide difference between how modern audiences view Darwin and how he was perceived by people during his lifetime.

"The Voyage of the Beagle was an adventure story," he pointed out. "In the 19th century, Darwin was seen as a scientist adventurer. He was a very romantic figure. I hope people will leave the exhibit with a new idea of Darwin as an adventurer, not the stodgy figure they see in portraits of him as an old man."

Map of Darwin's voyage around the world.The element of adventure to Darwin's life and work is emphasized through a large map that shows the path of his five-year voyage around the world: from England to South America, through the Pacific islands to southern Australia, and around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Visitors will see a full set of clothing worn by the "gauchos," of South America, the exotic Argentinian "cowboys" whom Darwin spent time with and described in detail in his "Voyage of the Beagle." Illustrations in the book show how the gauchos hunted large flightless rhea birds using bolas: a long cord linking two leather-bound rocks that could be thrown to bring down the birds from horseback.

The exhibit will include a large model of the Beagle itself, and a video presentation featuring the beautiful illustrations of animals Darwin encountered on his travels. These lithographs were hand-colored by several well-known illustrators of the day. Alongside these will be specimens from the museum's collection of some of these same animals.

"Overall we want visitors to begin to understand that there are many sides to Darwin," Magruder said. "There is so much more to Darwin than meets the eye, and that's what people understand when you get all the books together in one place. He was somebody it's really worthwhile to get to know. I rank him with Galileo as one of the great scientific writers whose works had this extraordinary capacity to connect with people. Through his writing, he got people to think about a lot of different things, and we hope people will leave this exhibition thinking that they want to become reacquainted with Darwin... Model of the HMS Beaglethat they want to take their knowledge of him a little deeper."

"Darwin at the Museum" is part of a campus-wide year-long celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Throughout the year the museum is hosting lectures, family days, and a seminar series, all focusing on the work and legacy of Charles Darwin.