English Heritage and Designmap to evolve Darwin exhibit for bicentenary

English Heritage’s offering for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth next year is to be developed around its Down House exhibition, with the help of Designmap.

A number of organisations, including Cambridge University, the Natural History Museum and the Darwin200 initiative, as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, are marking the occasion with their own events.

As well as commemorating Darwin’s bicentenary and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species, English Heritage aims to clarify Darwin’s theories to the public through a revamped permanent exhibition space at Down House in Kent, where Darwin lived.

English Heritage interpretation officer Jenny Cousins explains that funding released by the sale of neighbouring property Buckston Browne to the Charles Darwin Trust in 2004 has enabled the £1m development.

‘One of the things that came out of the visitor research was that the public knows who Darwin is, but doesn’t really know what he did, what his theories are, or why he’s important. It’s Designmap’s job to tell the story,’ says Cousins.

Designmap won the £270 000 project at the beginning of March, alongside design-and-build group MDM Props, following a public tender process that subsequently involved a four-way, unpaid creative pitch.

Daniel Sutton, director of Designmap, explains the pitch process took up quite a lot of the consultancy’s time. ‘The pitch basically ran over by a couple of months. We had the pre-qualification questionnaire stage just before Christmas, then a creative submission, and then an interview presentation, where we had to try to take the proposal just that little bit further. We’re quite a small company, so it took a lot of effort for us to put the hours in,’ says Sutton.

The project, which includes exhibition interpretation, signage and exhibition graphics, is expected to be completed by the end of January 2009.

The exhibition spans eight upstairs rooms at Down House, and the design concept will be based on Darwin’s visualisation of evolution, building connectivity into the exhibition’s displays.

‘We’ll use Darwin’s sketches, sort of branching motifs that illustrate how evolution happens, and build that into the 3D space, graphics and other elements,’ says Sutton.

Cousins explains that as Darwin wrote most of his books and conducted most of his experiments at Down House, the space should be akin to a ‘living museum’.

‘Darwin based so much of his work on observation – it was the great age of amateur science. Some of the experiments that he did took years to complete. For instance, he studied the worms there over a period of 20 years. Most people today find this sort of thing inconceivable, so it’s vital that the exhibition reflects Darwin’s consideration and reasoning,’ says Cousins.

Another of the key features will be to present the story of Darwin’s life, showing how his voyage on the HMS Beagle influenced his thinking and later work. Designmap is planning to create a cross-section of Darwin’s cabin as part of this element of the exhibition.

A multimedia section for the exhibition is still under consideration, although it has been put out to tender and seven groups have been interviewed. ‘It all depends on funds,’ Cousins adds.

The origin of the exhibition

• Phase I of development saw English Heritage take over Down House from the Natural History Museum in 1997

• Phase II will include reinterpreting the gardens and an overhaul of the permanent exhibition spaces on the first floor

• The Down House Bicentenary Project will open to coincide with the bicentenary of Darwin’s birthday on 12 February 2009

• The panel of experts advising on the exhibition include Randal Keynes (great-great-grandson of Darwin), Janet Browne (professor of the history of science at Harvard), Johannes Vogel (keeper of botany at the Natural History Museum) and Dr Greg Raddick (lecturer in history and philosophy of science at Leeds University)

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