Yesterday the sidekick and I saw the Darwin exhibit at the Field Museum. I thought I’d write a brief review of it in case any of you Chicago area readers are thinking about seeing it, or haven’t heard about it.
First off, I don’t think it’s a good exhibit to take kids to. The bulk of the displays is material to be read; there’s 4 looped videos, lots of cases of beetles and bugs that Darwin collected, but nothing interactive. Kids who enjoy going to museums for the fun of pushing buttons and playing those little games where you answer questions will have nothing to do.
The displays are organized chronologically and follow Darwin’s life from the background of his family through the voyage on the Beagle and his years of reclusive work to his eventual worldwide fame. Letters and journals show the progress of his scientific training and the gradual development of his ideas about natural selection in his own words. Darwin’s handwriting is really hard to read, so selected quotes from the papers are duplicated in type in the displays.
The exhibit carefully follows and explains Darwin’s thought processes in trying to figure out how evolution works. It’s interesting to see how gradually but inevitably the theory of natural selection came together. Darwin had the naturalist training to know what to observe and record when he traveled around the world, and the right background in geology, botany and biology to understand how everything fit together when he was back at home going through his notes and collections. The exhibit shows how each intermediary conclusion he came to along the way was supported by everything he’d found before, and followed naturally in his line of thinking. It’s a great demonstration of how intellectual honesty will help you think through a tricky problem, if, you know, you’re independently wealthy gentry and you’ve got 20 years.
From the personal letters you get a very good idea of Darwin’s personality. He was a great guy – enthusiastic about the natural world, devoted to his family, and always ready to be interested in whatever was going on around him. There’s some particularly funny displays where he applies scientific reasoning to the decision to get married, and observes how natural selection accounts for the behavior of his 2-year-old son. If you enjoy 19th century British lit like I do, you’ll get a kick out of all the Victorian-gentlemanly prose.
The exhibit finishes with a section on what “theory” means in a scientific context and why it’s misconceived to apply a scientific theory to non-scientific social and political situations. There’s videos of scientists talking about science and faith and a time line of the various court cases that have involved evolution over the last 150 years.
So anyway, it’s a very thoughtful and carefully organized exhibit, and you’ll learn a lot if you see it. Don’t bother getting the audio tour – it didn’t have any information that wasn’t in the printed displays. Like I said, there’s lots of reading; it takes about 2.5 hours to get through everything. You need a ticket for timed admission, so get one online before you go to the museum and you can skip the long ticket lines. The exhibit is running through January 1.