The Gist: ‘Darwin’

Photo: Richard Milner Archive (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History)

A museum exhibit about Charles Darwin? That’s timely.
No kidding—the exhibit opens smack in the middle of the intelligent-design fracas.

So I gather it’s some rush job thrown together to capitalize on the political moment.
Not at all. The show is nearly three years in the making. According to the museum’s Michael Walker, “We looked around after the Einstein exhibit and said, ‘Who’s next?’ ” Besides, Darwin is practically the patron saint of the Museum of Natural History.

Sorry—did you say turtles?
Well, technically, Galápagos tortoises, the kind Darwin saw on his five-year voyage around the world. Two of them crawl around a glass enclosure. A live iguana and some orchids make appearances, too. And two (stuffed) birds called blue-footed boobies.

Is it as wonky as the Einstein exhibit?
Actually, “Darwin” is more graspable because it starts with simpler principles—you don’t need to come in knowing about physics. Plus, it has live turtles.

Photo: S. Quinn

So it’s for kids?
Not necessarily, though it’s kid-friendly. It’s pretty meaty from a grown-up historical standpoint, with Darwin’s notebooks and letters and a re-creation of his workroom. One artifact is quiet yet extremely profound—a tiny notebook in which Darwin sketched the world’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree, under the scribbled words I THINK. Besides, the whole exhibit is rather slyly put together.

Sly? How do you mean?
Well, from the very first caption, the texts on the wall make quiet but unmistakable reference to Darwin’s fight against unscientific thinking. And there’s a focus on humanizing the man, talking about his family, his health, even his own grapples with religion.

But they must acknowledge the political climate somehow.
Yes, right at the finish. The last section is titled “Social Reactions to Darwin” and includes a video of seven naturalists speaking about how they reconcile science with faith. One rather pointed text explains how most of us use the word “theory” (to mean a tossed-off notion) versus how scientists use it (to mean an essentially proven explanation). Overall, there’s a conscious attempt to show that nonscientific arguments have been lobbed at Darwin from the start.

Photo: Syndics of Cambridge University Library

So will there be picketers?
Probably not. It’s the sort of show that you might take your devout Southern Baptist aunt to—it’s hard to argue with, almost a playbook for the debates it will provoke. In fact, a few early reviews suggested that the show underplays the revolutionary aspect of Darwin’s work because it makes it seem inevitable.

You think this’ll change anybody’s mind?
Not anybody who really likes Samuel Alito. But, hell, it can’t hurt to try.

At the American Museum of Natural History
Through May 29

The Gist: ‘Darwin’