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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2010
EventThe Art of Evolution: Charles Darwin and Visual Cultures,Courtauld Institute - London, United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Jul 20094 Jul 2009

Conference

ConferenceThe Art of Evolution: Charles Darwin and Visual Cultures,Courtauld Institute
CountryUnited Kingdom
CityLondon
Period2/07/094/07/09

Abstract

This paper looks at aspects of the relationships between art, taxidermy, bio-politics and the shifting representations of Darwinian evolutionary theory within the history of the Darwin Museum, Moscow from 1907 to 2009. The museum began in 1907 at the Higher Womens’ Courses institute in Moscow, with a collection of stuffed birds belonging to the founder, Dr Aleksandr Kots. It was nationalised by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and opened to the general public in 1924. Soviet Decrees in 1926, 1946 and 1968 promised the construction of a dedicated building, which, however was only realised after the fall of the USSR, opening in 1995. Today it is the leading natural history museum in Russia, designated the Scientific, Informational and Methodological Centre of the Russian Association of Natural History Museums, under the Russian National Committee of ICOM – the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History. What the new museum explicitly shares with its previous incarnations is a commitment to the use of art - including graphics, painting, photography, sculpture, taxidermy, as well as the art of museum display - as means to engage the viewer with Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and to emphasise the variety and variation in nature. Indeed, many of the current exhibits include art works and mounted specimens dating back to the earliest days of the museum’s existence. Today, as in the past, the displays are designed by artists in conjunction with curatorial subject experts.
In narrating a partial history of the museum, I want to draw attention to the mesh of connections and contrasts with western approaches to Darwinian science and museological representations of evolution. Among the connections, are the use of taxidermy and art to provide an educational spectacle, particularly for the education of women; links with zoopsychology, early genetic science and discourse on eugenics; as well as reference to a ‘progress’ model of human evolution common in popular culture. The differences relate to how Darwinism was politically, and scientifically nuanced within shifting historical contexts: as intrinsically, politically radical in the pre-revolutionary era; as the basis for understanding and prompting a new stage of human evolution in the Revolutionary1920s-30s; and as diametrically opposed to genetic science in the Lysenkoist period between 1938 and the 1960s. I will begin by looking briefly at the role of taxidermy, leading on to consider the Museum’s engagement, firstly with issues of micro-evolution, and secondly with macro-evolution, where I will focus particularly on approaches to the evolution of humankind.

ID: 623679