Two Museums, Library at Amherst College Unveil Darwin Displays

November 20, 2009

AMHERST, Mass.—Charles Darwin and the publication of his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species 150years ago are being commemorated at AmherstCollege through special exhibits and displays at the Museum of Natural History, the MeadArt Museum and the Frost Library.

The anniversary day is Nov. 24, and the temporary exhibits will run through February 2010.  The initiative was spearheaded by Kate Wellspring, collections manager at the Museum of Natural History and an On the Origin of Species junkie. She owns about 15 copies of the Charles Darwin book, eight of which she keeps in her office. A small paperback is her lucky copy, a gift for her 12th birthday. “I’ve been collecting the book for years,” she says.

The ‘Origin’ event represents the first time that these three departments -- Natural History, Mead and Frost have jointly designed and collaborated on an exhibit. “We hope it will be the first of many of such collaborations,” Wellspring says.

What follows are more details about each exhibit:

1.) The Museum of Natural History will feature an exhibit called “Simple and Grand” (the phrase is borrowed from the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species). The exhibit will feature several copies of the book, bones of modern and fossil animals, a 19th century microscope, a browsing copy of the book that visitors can read for themselves and museum specimens that represent various chapters.

For example, there is the skull of a ground sloth that lived some 1.5 million years ago. Darwin found similar fossils when he arrived in South America, Wellspring says. The ground sloth—a creature about the size of a Clydesdale horse—is related to the much smaller modern tree sloth.

Also on display are modern pigeon skulls. As Wellspring explains, Darwin did experimental breeding of pigeons to demonstrate that selective processes can affect the way future generations of organisms will look. The skulls in the exhibit illustrate the kinds of minute variations that Darwin labored to describe.

2.)   Michael Kelly and Peter Nelson of Archives and Special Collections put together a display in the lobby of Frost Library that includes the college’s treasured first-edition copy of On the Origin of Species, other 19th century books about natural history and a letter that Darwin sent to Amherst’s Edward Hitchcock.

3.) The Mead and the Museum of Natural History have done a “label swap”, establishing a relationship between a painting in the Mead’s collection, Green River of Wyoming (1878) by Thomas Moran, and an exhibit of fossil fish in the Museum of Natural History; the rocks that the fishes come from feature prominently in the painting. Also, a podcast by Amherst College Geology Professor Tekla Harms available on the Mead’s website (https://www.amherst.edu/museums/mead/podcasts/video/american/greenriverofwyoming) discusses in more detail the geologic and socio-political aspects of the painting.

The Mead’s exhibit will be installed by Monday, Nov. 23; the others are already on display.

All of these exhibitions are free and open to the public. The Museum of Natural History is open Tuesday-Sunday 11-4 pm and Thursdays 6-10 pm; for Mead Art Museum hours visit: https://www.amherst.edu/museums/mead/information/planavisit/hourspav; for Frost Library hours visit: https://www.amherst.edu/library/hours.

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