Darwin bicentennial exhibition evolves into online collaborative project

“Your father says he shall never think small beer of himself again,” Emma Darwin wrote her son in November 1859, just a few weeks after the original run of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” had sold out and his publisher had already committed to a second edition. “Candidly, he does think it very well written.”

In 2009, Indiana University celebrated the 200th birthday of the influential naturalist who rocked the scientific world with his theory of evolution with a display at the Lilly Library. Now, that bicentennial exhibition will live online through a collaborative project by Indiana University English professor Christoph Irmscher and College Arts & Humanities Institute assistant Alex Teschmacher.

Darwin image

An anti-Darwinian foldout by an anonymous artist.

The two recently unveiled an interactive website, “Music for the Worms: Darwin at the Lilly Library,” which details Darwin’s life, including his experiences as a young naturalist on board the H.M.S. Beagle, and his interactions with allies and foes alike. The website also offers a glimpse at the myriad letters he exchanged with an extensive network of fellow scientists, amateur naturalists, gardeners, diplomats, members of the military and others.

“We wanted to give this exhibit a life beyond its physical representation at the Lilly,” said Irmscher, who helped create a similar website in 2007 for poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in collaboration with Harvard University’s Houghton Library. “Darwin can be difficult to teach, as people approach him with all sorts of preconceptions. Through this site, even non-Darwin scholars can get a sense of how complex he really was and learn about his work and life.”

“The online exhibitions of The Lilly Library allow us to showcase unique items,” said Brenda L. Johnson, Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries. “We are thrilled to offer scholars and the general public access to invaluable exhibits such as this one on Lilly’s website.”

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce

Created by Teschmacher, the website features high-resolution images of Darwin’s books, photographs and other images that help illustrate the author’s life and work. Among the illustrations are images from Bond creator Ian Fleming’s copy of the 1859 “Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London,” where Darwin’s ideas on evolution first appeared in print. Fleming’s collection of first editions of works that marked scientific milestones is housed at the Lilly Library.

The site also features photographs of some of Darwin’s allies and critics, including a stern portrait of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce — “hand clutching his coat as if in acute distress or to protect himself from the inevitable winds of historical change,” per the site — as well as an incredibly detailed mixed-media illustration created by an anonymous German artist depicting man’s apparent ape-like progenitors.

Want to check out the Lilly Library in person? It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free and open to the public.

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