Fall 2012

A Case for Darwin

Henry Flower’s evolutionary displays

Rachel Poliquin

London’s Natural History Museum with the seven displays created by Henry Flower in place. All images courtesy the Natural History Museum.

In 1888, a large four-sided glass display case containing four dozen albino animals and birds was installed in the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Among its ghostly occupants were a wallaby, two rabbits, a hedgehog, a lobster (pale but not purely white), a mole, a squirrel, and more than two dozen birds, including a rook, a pied-headed blackbird, and a sparrow with pink eyes. Most of the birds were perched on the branches of a leafless tree sprouting through the center of the case. A few were posed fluttering as if about to take flight, while the animals were arranged around the base, staring out at visitors from all four directions. Accompanying the display was an explanatory sign describing albinism as “a condition in which the pigment or colouring matter usually present in the tissues constituting the external covering of the body, and which give them their characteristic hue, is absent.”1

With or without its pedagogical value, the display captivated visitors. The newspapers of the day heralded the case as one of the most popular in the whole museum. As the Daily Chronicle wrote in 1891, “apart from its scientific value, the collection is certainly an oddly attractive one, and it is no wonder so many visitors linger round it,” particularly the younger children who “will even try to kiss the white ones, forgetting the glass.”2 But the display was hardly a straightforward illustration of biological fact. Artistically arranged, the display seems innocuous, scientifically speaking, and yet, while there is nothing controversial in describing and illustrating albinism, the case was part of a strikingly original educational series that used animal charisma in the service of scientific propaganda.

The albino display was the third case in a series of seven created by Henry Flower, the director of the Natural History Museum. The Central Hall was the first space visitors encountered when entering the museum, and Flower wanted to fill the hall with introductory lessons illustrating “general laws or points of interest in Natural History”3 which did not fall within the taxonomic principles governing most of the museum’s zoological collections. Row after row of animals systematically arranged by genus and species were highly illustrative, but the ordering principle excluded discussions of any other laws or natural facts such as albinism or, more provocatively, natural selection. Installed in the vast, cathedral-like hall between 1887 and 1891, Flower’s educational series was significantly positioned to illustrate not just any laws or points of interest but the full complexity of one spectacularly polemic doctrine: evolution.

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