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Review: Darwin's Big Idea Exhibition

Recently at the 'Darwin: Big Idea' exhibition I was faced with some other dinosaurs. Draped in black fabrics, the setting was as dour and bleak as many people see the Victorian period. From this darkness shone Darwin's personal letters and the animal specimens he spent so many years collecting.

Two floreana mockingbirds were presented on a plush purple cushion. To the unknowing eye these are simple dead birds. To the knowing eye, monarchs of this exhibit. Their bodies stand as a testament to collecting and learning from animals. By examining the beaks of the finches, Darwin (along with consultation with ornithologists) discovered his theory of adaptation.

But they also remind us of the problematic connection between natural history and colonialism. When Darwin made his incredible discovery, for instance, it is often omitted that the HMS Beagle on which he sailed made its voyage with the intention to gain stronger British control over the peoples and land of South America, the Falklands and Galápagos. As part of wider global domination, the voyage of the Beagle involved surveys, the anglicized naming of places and control. The expedition was not for all human betterment - some being deemed savages by Darwin himself - but the betterment of certain humans.

It's a tough cookie to swallow when one of your favourite hobbies is to visit natural history museums and get close to these collections, the very creatures, objects and documentation once held by people in the past to better understand their present.

Since museum ethos is led by custodianship, to preserve the past and ensure we can stay in close proximity to it, I wonder why these exhibits, their labels and guides omit any context of imperialism. Under the guise of objectivity and scientific discovery, natural history exhibits share only half the facts, without questioning the context or cost of their discovery.

Often we trust that the museum sector holds so much information that it really must know best and will always act responsibly. But if our curators and tour guides fail to decolonialise the archives and acknowledge this past, we must ask what section of the public the archive serves, who it educates and why? Such curation preserves the ideological notion of white Western superiority that eventually led to the misapplication of On the Origin of Species by fascist governments.

As a working class poet of minority ethnicity working in the archive, I delve into boxes of carefully packed objects, manuscripts and natural history collections. Though I feel at home when I'm at work an archive, there's an invisible barrier I can feel.

My goal is to be challenged and surprised, to educate myself through these experiences with material culture and write about the process. Darwin wrote he was turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions. I seek democratic truths and new conclusions that can illuminate our past - and so, our present - inclusively and without prejudice.



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