This article is based on a paper in the journal Evolution:Education and Outreach. It explores an art work celebrating the work of Charles Darwin and its relevance to the future of biodiversity.
TREE Placing Darwin into the heart of the Natural History Museum.
The Natural History Museum celebrated Darwin’s bicentenary and the sesquicentennial of his seminal work ‘Origins’ by commissioning a new art work as a permanent insertion into the Grade 1 listed building. This article explores this new work, its links to Darwin’s legacy, and the future of biodiversity.
The history of the Natural History Museum in London is of course entangled with the emergence of Darwin’s ideas, after all it was the museum’s Superintendent, the eminent anatomist Richard Owen who, behind the scenes, had provided Samuel Wilberforce with the arguments to try and oppose Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas H Huxley, in the ‘Great debate’ at the Oxford meeting of the British Association.
Owen championed the museum’s move to South Kensington. He briefed the architect Alfred Waterhouse, twenty years after the publication of Origins, that the building should celebrate the wonder and awe of creation. When the building eventually opened in 1881 its inspiration had come from religious cathedrals. It did acknowledge the long history of life on earth however, with it’s rich façade covered in sculpted motifs of the remains of extinct creatures – drawn from specimens in the collections. In the heart of the Museum is the cathedral-like central hall, deliberately designed to inspire reverence, with its columns, like the trunks of vast trees reaching up to support a barrel-ceiling supported by the branches of cast-iron girders. The panels of the ceiling are painted and gilded with important economic plants. Today, on an upper balcony, is also the historic specimen of a huge cross-section through the trunk of a giant sequoia.
The grand staircase of this hall had been the location of a Portland Stone statue of Darwin that had been commission on his death. Directly behind this staircase, on the mezzanine level, is an inner ‘chapel’ gallery which connects between the east and west balconies. It was here that a proposal by Dr Bob Bloomfield, to create a contemporary response using the ceiling of the restored mezzanine ‘chapel’, could be used to honour Darwin. Bob invited seventeen leading UK Gallery Directors, curators and critics of the contemporary arts to propose artists who might fulfill the challenge. Forty artists were placed on a long-list, and a panel of arts experts, museum experts and scientists reduced these to a short list of 10 artist, among them were two previous Turner Prize Winners and other Turner Prize nominees. Each agreed to prepare a concept proposal which was exhibited in a pubic exhibition in the summer of 2008. Darwin’s Canopy, curated by Bergit Arends, encouraged visitors to offer views – which were taken into account when the selection panel reconvened.
The work chosen was TREE, by artist Tania Kovats. Her proposal was simple in concept but inspired. She proposition had grown from her contemplation of Darwin’s iconic stretch of a branching tree next to which he had famously jotted ‘I think’, generally regarded as the point when he realised that species were not separated, but related over time through a process of adaptations and modifications which would lead to an ever-branching evolutionary tree. However, her idea of manifesting this was nothing if not ambitious. Her work would respond to; the Museum’s core role of housing research collections; to the original decorated ceiling of botanical images, and to the process of science research – Darwin himself had taken a microscope on the Beagle and had prepared a slide collection. All these ideas merged in her proposition to embed, over the ceiling, a vast longitudinal thin-section through a 200 year-old English Oak Tree. This would respond to the historic bicentenary, the tree’s growth analogous to that of the understanding in evolutionary biology from Darwin’s acorn over a similar time scale. The longitudinal section would become one of the museum’s largest accessioned specimens as well as having symmetry with the cross-section of the historical sequoia specimen in the adjacent hall. The work would have an intimate, through contemporary correspondence to the original decorative intention of Waterhouse’s ceilings.
While the idea was simple and profound, its creation would be a monumental task. The tree could not be procured until September as the sap began to fall back and leaves would fall. It would require a hugely mapped exercise of competent tree surgeons to dissect a 19-23 metre tree into sections that it could later be reconstructed. A hugely technical effort involving large-scale kiln-drying of the timber and a novel way of employing anodised aluminium panels and specialist resin-bonding would have to be devised to support the 3-5mm sections which Tania wanted to achieve.
Then there were ethical issues, simply destroying a tree for the work was not good enough, Tania and I were deeply aware of how Darwin’s ideas underpin our contemporary understanding of ecology and biodiversity, and today biodiversity is in peril and the future of humans and the natural world is in the face of a pending human-induced mass extinction. We wanted the work to respond to this, and to the need for humans to take a much more enlightened approach to our complex evolved world and of the need for sustainable use of natural resources.
Having chosen the work Bob approached the Longleat estate of Lord Bath in Wiltshire. The estate includes large tracts of broadleaf forest, which are both commercially managed and recognised as a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because of its rich biodiversity. Here a tree could be chosen as part of the usual timber crop, but it would be in the context of high level sustainable forestry practice. While the Estate primarily uses long-term natural succession to replace its cut timber which encourages native tree diversity, Tanya wanted to plant 200 young oak trees on areas of the estate as ‘Darwin Clumps’. It was also unusual for the estate to extract the massive 20-ton tree-stump which our work required. This provided the opportunity to excavate a massive hole and to create from this a pond habitat within the forest – a habitat which was scarce on the estate. All of this work would also be manifested in the presentation of the final work in a complementary Video commentary, so that the work is also a comment on sustainable practices maintaining the rural economy and biodiversity together.
The final work was opened in March 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the February birthday celebrations. In stalwart English oak it is a metaphor of the endurance of Darwin’s ideas as well as Darwin’s own bravery and commitment to them. Tanya’s work will be visible in a future century, when people may consider this work in the light of our current time. Of how people of the early 21st century responded to the evidence of evolution, to the issues of biodiversity loss and environmental change, and to the challenge of finding a more equitable path of sustainable development within our evolved world. Of course part of the work will be those trees which survive to mature at Longleat, recorded on their estate maps, and hopefully continuing to support biodiversity and to remind people of these critical decades faced by humans and the natural world.
Based on article in:
TREE Placing Darwin into the heart of the Natural History Museum, London. R M Bloomfield Evolution:Education and Outreach, Springer March 2012, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 38-42