Tangled Banks

14 04 2009

This is not going to be a post about how the banks are in a mess or how entangled their corrupt dealings are.  I’m going to save that for a future post about cultural heritage and economics, though I need to do some research first, for example looking at articles from the Institute for Collapsonomics .

No, this is about Darwin’s tangled banks. The final paragraph of his Origin of Species posits an ‘entangled bank’ as a way for us to envisage evolution taking place.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This ‘entangled bank’ is not one of the various extraordinary ecosystems that Darwin studied on his Voyage of the Beagle, but one close to his home and pretty close to many of his readers’ homes, in the home counties near London. As Easter for me is more of a time to celebrate Spring in nature rather than the Resurrection, we went on a day out to Down House, the home of Darwin for 40 years. We also wandered round the village of Downe, and looked at the church which was for Darwin the significant centre for the community. Then we walked through Keston Common, one of his woodland and heathland areas of study. See here for some photos of these places.

The house is owned by English Heritage, who have put a good deal of resource into improving the experience to coincide with the Darwin200 celebrations. This investment was also part of the bid to make Downe and Cudham (or Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory) a World Heritage Site, although that application is now withdrawn.

Overall, it’s a pretty good experience. The house is perfectly restored and the downstairs rooms highly atmospheric, especially his study. Upstairs, there is a new exhibition, Uncovering Origins, which is very informative and accessible. It includes a mock-up of his room on the Beagle with a ‘pepper’s ghost’ of him at his desk. We spent a lot of time looking at the large map of the voyage, at the family tree that showed Darwin’s entanglement with the Wedgewood family, and at the Turning the Pages treatment of his notebooks. We also spent time in the two (yes, two!) rooms aimed at children, which had some pretty good interactive games designed with a Victorian sideshow feel. We found the gardens a little bit underwhelming, although walking Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ was lovely.

The enriched interpretation in the house is really welcome, although as a family we did have some criticisms:

The provision of free PDA audio-visual guides is a good thing. But this meant that the downstairs rooms were clogged up with people taking their time listening and fiddling with their devices so you couldn’t actually see the detail in the rooms. In the upstairs exhibition, the devices were taken away from you and so in these spaces the visitors were much more able to concentrate, play with the exhibits and talk to each other. I was disappointed with the content of these AV tours as they missed the opportunity to create an ambient layer to enrich your experience of moving around the house and the gardens. I generally find recorded speech far too slow and irritating as a way of taking in information, but I do like it if it is music, sound effects, poetry or drama. A recent discussion on Twitter about audioguides sparked by Nina Simon shows that I’m not alone in this.

Our second criticism is that we would have liked a way to interact with the ideas in the exhibition. There was one video called ‘What does Darwin mean to you?’ but it only showed talking heads and we had no chance to leave our own ideas. There could be some wonderfully creative ways to engage people with Darwin and evolution, for example, by inviting them to contribute to an evolving story or an artwork.

I’ll soon make a visit to the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum and will be interested to see how it enables visitor interactions. It’s so important that we get beyond simplistic debates about evolution vs belief and extend public understanding of historic ecology and biodiversity. That’s why heritage experiences must be as interactive and creative as possible.









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