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Darwin exhibit at Fernbank Museum shows the man behind the theories | Arts & Culture

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Darwin exhibit at Fernbank Museum shows the man behind the theories
Arts & Culture
Darwin exhibit at Fernbank Museum shows the man behind the theories

It’s Nature’s World; Charles Darwin Just Lived Here


Set a course for adventure and peer into Charles Darwin’s world as you join his voyage of discovery in the new special exhibition Darwin. Visitors will take a journey to the 19th century as they encounter diverse species from the Galapagos, fascinating fossils, scientific tools, and the incredible discoveries of Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

On view at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta from September 24, 2011 through January 1, 2012, Darwin offers an engaging and enlightening glimpse into the extraordinary life and mind of Charles Darwin, whose curiosity, observations and discoveries over 150 years ago forever changed the perception of many species on Earth, including humans, and is the foundation for modern biological science.

As visitors explore the exhibition, they’ll find live animals, unique specimens, interesting artifacts, significant manuscripts and incredible memorabilia related to Charles Darwin. Additionally, Fernbank created a special “What is a Scientist” component that engages children, adults and families alike in learning more about the tools, observations, curiosities and questions that are at the heart of every scientist. These special stops along the exhibition feature call-outs crafted as field journal pages to reveal interesting details, suggest activities and point out special items for closer investigation.

As visitors explore the exhibition through the eyes of a scientist, they will experience many of the wonders Darwin witnessed as a curious and adventurous young man aboard the HMS Beagle during his historic voyage to South America, the Galapagos Islands, and beyond (1831-1836).

As the exhibition re-creates Darwin’s experience as the ship’s naturalist, visitors encounter some of the first clues that led to his theory of evolution, including a live five-foot green iguana and horned frogs from South America, drawing visitors into the curious eye of Darwin, who was fascinated with the diversity of life on Earth.

Visitors journey with Darwin through the scientific method and witness how he explored, observed and examined the world around him. They also learn how he arrived at the startling conclusion that life on Earth is not static, but is constantly changing, and how his groundbreaking theory of natural selection offered a mechanism to explain the existence of the amazing diversity of life on Earth. These insights continue to guide modern scientists worldwide as they apply Darwin’s concepts to global inventories of life, conservation biology, reconstruction of the evolutionary Tree of Life, and the treatment of diseases ranging from AIDS to SARS.

One of the many highlights of Darwin is an elaborate reconstruction of the naturalist’s study at Down House, where, as a keen observer and dedicated experimenter, he proposed the revolutionary theory that all life evolves according to the mechanism of natural selection.  The study is recreated as it appeared while Darwin himself was studying field journals, examining specimens, conducting experiments and exploring how so much diversity of life on Earth exists—a theory Darwin kept confidential for 21 years while he continued his research.

“One of the elements that intertwines this exhibition so closely with the mission of any natural history museum is how Darwin embraces the sense of awe and curiosity about nature that led to the this groundbreaking theory, which remains the cornerstone of modern biology,” said Susan Neugent, Fernbank’s President & CEO. “American children are facing declining achievement in science nation-wide, including here in Georgia, so even though the name ‘Darwin’ can evoke strong reactions, his work is vitally important to finding cures for diseases, managing the environment, and improving the underlying basis of science education.”

Live animals, plants, reconstructions, visuals and interactives help connect visitors with the astounding diversity of life Darwin encountered during his studies. Colorful and detailed re-creations of the environments and creatures Darwin witnessed during his travels reveal the power of observation as visitors investigate fascinating species ranging from marine iguanas to vermilion flycatchers and from frigate birds to the amazing daisy tree.

Touch specimens, such as a reproduction of a giant glyptodont skeleton (a prehistoric armored mammal), provide numerous hands-on encounters, while a simple hand lens—just like Darwin used—gives visitors more opportunities to observe fascinating items, such as petrified wood. Visitors also encounter species of live carnivorous plants, explore the types of fossils he collected, and see samples of the field journals where he amassed his observations.

Computer interactives allow visitors to explore homologies, which are similar structures of common origin in different types of animals, by examining features among whales, frogs, humans and other species. In a natural selection interactive, visitors modify a virtual environment to explore how the eating habits of birds might favor insects with certain colors and characteristics.

Visitors also are introduced to the various debates that have surrounded Darwin’s theory and they can examine the distinction between scientific theories that can be tested, and non-scientific, theological explanations about the origin and diversity of life.

“Many people are likely to recall the public discussion about teaching evolution in our region several years ago, which led a school district to place cautionary stickers inside science text books.  Similar debates around the U.S. demonstrate the strong emotions tied to evolution—stretching back a century to the Scopes trial and even further to the publication of Origin of Species,” said Fernbank’s Vice President of Education, Christine Bean.  “While not everyone sees eye to eye on issues of science and religion, this exhibit provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand both Darwin’s scientific achievements and why it’s crucial that evolution remain a cornerstone of science curriculum.”   

Videos throughout the exhibition offer the modern perspectives of scientists, scholars and Darwin’s own family to reveal the impact his research still has on science today, the misconceptions that continue to surround his work, and the way his legacy has inspired future generations of scientists.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, visitors encounter a colorful montage of silk orchids—an incredibly diverse plant family that fascinated Darwin. His study of the nectar-producing organs of orchids and the shapes of the insects and birds that pollinate them helped him understand some of the manifestations of adaptation in nature. Darwin theorized that Madagascar must be home to an insect with an incredibly long feeding tube, or proboscis, because the orchid species Angraecum sesquipedale holds nectar—the sweet liquid that draws pollinators—only at the very tip of its foot-long green throat. No such insect had ever been found there, though. But after Darwin died in 1882, a naturalist discovered the giant hawk moth, which hovers like a hummingbird as its long, whip-like proboscis probes for the distant nectar in this orchid species. The moth’s scientific name, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, honors the prediction of the scientist who never saw it, but whose theory told him that it must exist.

“We hope visitors will walk away with a new understanding of Charles Darwin and how his love of nature was the inspiration for a career in science,” Neugent said. “Even the biggest science buffs will walk away learning something they didn’t expect about Darwin—both as a person and as a scientist.”



Fernbank will celebrate the opening of Darwin with a special family day filled with activities, performances and other programming on September 24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The opening day celebration is included with museum admission and free for members. Special extended viewing opportunities will also be available during Fernbank’s Martinis & IMAX®, offered every Friday evening from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. through November. Many other programming opportunities, including lectures and Team Trivia nights, will also be featured in conjunction with the exhibition. Darwin is sponsored locally in part by the Isdell Family.



The IMAX® film Galapagos, showing from September 2, 2011 through January 1, 2012, is featured in conjunction with the Darwin exhibition, journeying to the famed archipelago of the Galapagos Islands and its surrounding waters with a marine biologist making her first venture into this stunning natural laboratory. Audiences will journey both above and beneath the surface of the ocean, where they come face to face with remarkable iguanas, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises while discovering primitive creatures and new species never before seen by humans.  A separate ticket is required for IMAX® films.



Museum admission, which includes the Darwin exhibition, is $17.50 for adults, $16.50 for students and seniors, $15.50 for children ages 3-12, and free for museum members and children ages 2 and younger. Value Pass admission, which includes the Museum and an IMAX® film, such as Galapagos, is $23 for adults, $21 for students and seniors, $19 for children ages 3-12, and $8 for Museum members.



Fernbank Museum of Natural History is located at 767 Clifton Road, NE in Atlanta. For tickets and visitor information, visit fernbankmuseum.org/Darwin or call 404.929.6300. Tickets can also be purchased through the Museum’s box office during regular business hours (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday) at 404.929.6400.

Arts & Culture