Visualising Evolution : Art, Visual Culture and Darwinisms in the Late19th and early 20th Centuries
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 1907-2010. The museum began in 1907 at the Higher Womens’ Courses institute in Moscow, with a collection of stuffed birds belonging to its founder, Dr Aleksandr Kots. Today it is the leading natural history museum in Russia. The new museum explicitly shares with its previous incarnations a commitment to the use of variety of art forms as means to engage the viewer with Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and to emphasise the variety and variation in nature. Many of the current exhibits include art works and mounted specimens dating back to the earliest days of the museum’s existence. As in the past, the displays are designed by artists in conjunction with curatorial subject experts. My argument draws 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 still common in popular culture. The differences relate to how Darwinism was politically, and scientifically nuanced within shifting historical contexts: as politically radical in the pre-revolutionary era; as the basis for understanding and prompting a new stage of human evolution in the Revolutionary 1920s-30s; and as diametrically opposed to genetic science in the Lysenkoist period 1938 –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 human evolution.