I honestly don’t spend all my time in museums (incidentally, why is it “museums” and not “musea”?). But recently I’ve visited a fair few: in addition to this weekend’s expedition to the London Canal Museum (which was the subject of my last post) I struck out into the depths of south London a few weeks ago to visit Down House, the Darwin family home.
To be fair, it took the visit of a good friend from New York City to coax me out there. Scott has read widely on Charles Darwin’s like and work, and so was as good a tour guide for the day as one could hope for. We wended our way first by train to Bromley, and then on a single decker bus down increasingly narrow country lanes where the twigs scratched lazily at the windows, and I became increasingly incredulous that my London Transport Oyster card was valid in such far-flung bucolic landscapes.
After a short walk from the bus stop, we arrived. We were greeted by a beautiful house set in stunning grounds, surrounded by trees and encircled in footpaths. Next door there was a small green at which a group of chaps were obligingly completing the rustic idyll with a game of cricket. The house itself is fascinating – as a piece of architecture in its own right, as an introduction to some of the nineteenth century’s greatest scientific achievements, and as an insight into the life of one of the same century’s most famous sons.
I knew very little about Charles Darwin before I went, other than the sound-bites which had stuck from my coordinated science GCSE. I left with a much better (though still very amateur!) understanding both of what he discovered, and of where that fitted in to the wider spectrum of scientific endeavour at the time.
Most striking of all, though, was what I learned about the man himself. My impression had always been one of the intrepid explorer, circumnavigating the globe, and hopping between the inhospitable Galapagos islands with notebook in hand. In fact, whilst this is true of the first few years of his research, the vast majority of the rest of his life was spent working at home in the confines of Down House and its gardens, nursing his recurrent episodes of ill health, sending off for books and journals by post, and perhaps most importantly of all doting on the family he loved.
Alongside his famous On the Origin of Species, one of his other most influential scientific works was on the subject of earthworms, research which can’t often have drawn him much further than a few yards from his own back door. And this allowed him to spend time with his wife and children, to whom he was a loving and indulgent husband and father, often at odds with the more stringent etiquettes of his time.
All this seemed curiously at odds with our own era, where we expect our public figures to live “larger than life”, even whilst sometimes criticising them for doing so. I’m never sure whether the apparent abundance of colourful characters in the modern world is a sign that human life has genuinely changed (evolved, even?); or whether by contrast it simply signals a prurient interest by the public and the media in the more exotic or outlandish behaviours of our celebrities.
Perhaps it indicates a deeper social “restlessness”, a feeling that we are not achieving unless we are embarked on some grand and ambitious plan which will change the world, or at least our little bit of it. But I wonder whether we couldn’t sometimes celebrate the ordinary a little more, and truly value the domestic and the familial alongside the political and the global. I am sure Charles Darwin would approve.