Sunday, December 21, 2008

Darwin and evolution in the Black Country (and back in the USSR)

On Saturday my wife banished me from the house for the day while she got things ready for Christmas, so I took the children on a tour of Darwin and evolution in the Black Country (a distinctive area of the English Midlands west and north of Birmingham, renowned for its local accent).

First stop was Dudley, unofficial capital of the Black Country. Dudley and its surroundings (particularly Wren's Nest) are famous for a local abundance of fossils from the Silurian period, especially trilobites. One species in particular, Calymene blumenbachi, is so common here that it was nicknamed "Dudley bug" or "Dudley locust" and features in the Dudley coat of arms. We visited the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, which houses a number of interesting exhibitions on topics as diverse as dinosaurs and the ancient Greeks. I was a little disappointed that the trilobite collection, which is supposedly one of the finest in existence, was not given a more prominent place in the museum. It was only more or less by accident that we stumbled across a drawer in the Fantastic Fossils exhibition that housed an extensive collection of trilobites. I guess part of the problem is that trilobites are just too small to compete in the visitor's imagination with the dinosaurs and mammoths given pride of place (but as replicas!) in the museum.

Next, we drove a few miles further north to the city of Wolverhampton (which strictly speaking is outside the Black Country). We parked in the car park of a shopping centre named after Wulfrun, the Saxon noble woman who founded the town in 985. Thanks to tip-offs from several bloggers (including Karen James at the Beagle project, Adrian Thysse at Evolving Complexity and Emma Townshend at Reading the Origin), I was keen to visit a new and all too ephemeral exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery called "Dreams of Science: The Life of Charles Darwin in the Russian Imagination". The Art Gallery is an impressive building and the Darwin exhibition itself well worth a visit (although the children didn't agree with me on that one!).

The exhibition is on loan from the Russian State Darwin Museum (which was established in 1907 to celebrate Darwin and natural history in Moscow), and features the work of two artists, Russian artists Mikhail Yesuchevskii (1880-1928) and Viktor Yevstafiev (1916-1990s). I managed to snap a few photos of some of the pictures (using the camera in my iPhone, which worked remarkably well under the circumstances). I cannot understand why the images are not already available on the web, so have included them here (but enjoy them while you can, because I will remove them if the Darwin State Museum asks me to).

The two artists hail from different eras: Yesuchevskii's work is from the 1920s, whereas Yevstafiev's pictures are all from 1948. There are also considerable differences in style. Yesuchevskii's depicts several other scientists in addition to Darwin (Cuvier and St. Hillaire, Lamarck, Buffon, Goethe) and is to my uneducated eyes somewhat reminiscent of van Gogh in style. The image here shows "Darwin discovering a prehistoric skull". One poignant observation in the text accompanying the exhibition is that the museum's founder, Alexander Kohts, managed quite literally to save Yesuchevskii from starving by employing him as an artist at the State Darwin Museum.

Yevstafiev's work is more literalist and often rather sentimental, particularly in the numerous portrayals of Darwin as a child. Here is "Darwin and his sister on a fishing trip". I can vouch forthe accuracy in the depiction of Darwin's childhood home, the Mount, as I was there only on Thursday!

Here are three more images from Darwin's childhood, of him fishing, collecting beetles and reading:

Also welcome are some images of Darwin as a young man ( a nice counterpoint to the usual bearded sage/ saint images from his old age). Here is young Darwin learning taxidermy in Edinburgh from freed Guyanan slave, John Edmonstone:

And here he is courting Emma at Maer Hall, with his father Robert seated to the left:

And finally here is my favourite (apologies for missing bird's head): "Darwin hunting on the plains".

So, if like me you live within an hour or so's drive of Wolverhampton and the Black Country, both museum's are well worth a visit. You will have to hurry to see the Dreams of Science, as it closes on 17th January 2009 (but I did discover that Wolverhampton Art Gallery is doing a play about Darwin later in the bicentenary year).

Oh and while we are on a Russian theme, here is the closing words of the Origin in Russian:

Есть величие в этом воззрении, по которому жизнь с ее различными проявлениями Творец первоначально вдохнул в одну или ограниченное число форм; и между тем как наша планета продолжает вращаться согласно неизменным законам тяготения, из такого простого начала развилось и продолжает развиваться бесконечное число самых прекрасных и самых
изумительных форм!

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