Students Create Darwin Exhibit

Unnamed photo
Alan C. Chiu

Cabot Science Library displays an exhibit on the effect of Darwin’s scientific discoveries as part of Harvard’s Darwin Day, commemorating the scientist’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his “On the Origin of Species.”

On the shelves of the Cabot Science Library sit a license plate, several action figures, ape skulls, and a television screen looping a cartoon video of Felix the Cat. The objects are part of an exhibition—the culmination of months’ work by the students of Professor Janet Browne’s History of Science 238: “Rethinking the Darwinian Revolution.”

To celebrate the year of Charles R. Darwin’s 200th birthday, the course’s eight students conducted research and constructed a display on the English naturalist. Each of them tackled a specific aspect of his life and legacy for the project; among the exhibit’s offerings include a children’s book on the H.M.S. Beagle, a Japanese translation of “On the Origin of Species,” and finch and mockingbird specimens from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“The purpose of the class and the exhibit is to see how we take this mountain of scholarship about Darwin—the Darwin industry—and show how he, his life and times, and his contributions of science have been understood over the last 150 years,” said Jenna A. Tonn, a first-year graduate student in the History of Science Department and a member of the course. “It’s probably the only exhibit about Darwin where you see everything on Darwin paraphernalia and bobbleheads to original copies of important texts by Darwin.”

Melissa M. Lo, also a first-year graduate student in the course, said that evolution did not achieve its status as universal knowledge until biologists years later expounded the idea. Her role in the exhibition involved showcasing the work and writings of one such chief scientist, Harvard Professor Ernst W. Mayr—otherwise known as the “Darwin of the 20th century.”

The exhibit is to not only to “show just that Darwin was this bright guy, but how he has networked into so many cultural aspects and disciplines,” said Lo. “He’s traveled from a tiny little island in the Atlantic to a legacy of global impact.”

The class’s display marks the beginning of the University’s commemoration of Darwin’s birthday. Starting at 10 a.m. today, a nine-hour Origin-a-thon will be held in five different locations throughout campus for a full reading of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Browne and Andrew Berry are teaching an “Understanding Darwinism” class open to the public, and Harvard scholars will discuss the scientist’s impact on their work in a “Darwin and Me” afternoon symposium. The Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub is hosting a birthday party from 8-10 p.m., featuring free drinks, live student music, and a Darwin trivia contest.

Lo invites the general public to experience the class’s exhibit in the context of today’s Darwin Day celebration: “It might be interesting to someone coming from the reading of ‘On the Origin of the Species’ to go to the Cabot Library to see what people have done with it and the rest of Darwin’s legacy.”

Browne, who is offering a talk at the symposium and a lecture titled “Darwin 200: Re-thinking the Revolution” at 6 p.m., extends a similar welcome. “Do make a detour to Cabot to see their work,” she said. “The exhibition explores why Darwin still packs such a punch today and how he has become a modern icon.”

—Staff writer Victor W. Yang can be reached at vyang@fas.harvard.edu.