This week we are going to jump aboard the evolution bandwagon. Unless you are planning on hiding under a rock from now until December 2009, you won’t be able to escape a certain Mr Charles Darwin, for this year marks the bicentennial of his birth and 150 years since the publication of his important scientific work on the theory of evolution: On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. Rather less auspiciously, this year also marks the 173rd anniversary of Darwin’s visit to Sydney (and later Hobart and King Georges Sound in Western Australia).

Lantern Slide of Charles Darwin (Museum Victoria, Item MM 106337 http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1481902)
Lantern Slide of Charles Darwin (Museum Victoria, Item MM 106337 http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1481902)

From November 1831 through to 1839, Charles Darwin travelled around the globe as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle  collecting, preserving and classifying biological, botanical and geological specimens including fossils, rocks, plants, insects and animals. Darwin was independently wealthy – his grand-father was Josiah Wedgewood – which meant he was able to pay for his passage. He was also able to employ a ‘manservant’, Syms Covington, whose job it was to collect specimens, which involved hunting, shooting and taxidermy.

On 12 January 1836, the HMS Beagle set anchor in Sydney Cove, where it remained for two weeks. Darwin disembarked, spending four days in the town, and from there he travelled across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, ‘to gain a general idea of the appearance of the country’. It was high summer, and NSW was in the midst of a drought at the time, with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius daily.

It is little wonder, then, that Darwin wasn’t overly fond of Sydney; he was critical of the efficacy of convict transportation, and also the class system, remarking that ‘the whole population, rich and poor, are bent on acquiring wealth’. He also thought it a poor field for natural history, and stated that ‘nothing but rather sharp necessity should compel me to emigrate’.

Despite his less than flattering opinions, many exhibitions are scheduled to celebrate the Darwin anniversaries throughout the year, including the display of a flea collected by Darwin, which will be on display for two weeks at Sydney University’s Macleay Museum from today until 26 February 2009. This female flea, particular to a type of Argentinian armadillo, is on display as part of the exhibition, Accidental Encounters, which focuses on Darwin and his 19th century contemporaries, William Sharp Macleay and Thomas Huxley.

Pickled bits & bobs at the Macleay Museum
Pickled bits & bobs at the Macleay Museum

The specimens collected by Macleay, a naturalist renowned for his work on classification, are on permanent display at the Macleay Museum, which was purpose-built for his collection; other specimens are on display at his former family home, Elizabeth Bay House.

Accidental Encounters is on at the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney, until 24 May 2009. Open Mon to Fri 10-4.30pm and Sundays 12noon-4pm

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