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Discoveries from the University of Cambridge Museums exhibit in London.
David Franchi – Thursday, 29th May 2014
“Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums” was an interesting exhibition in London.
Bringing together objects from the eight University of Cambridge Museums, “Discoveries” investigated all kind of human finding. This exhibition was not just about pieces of particular value, but works were selected purposely – between art, artefacts, specimens, documents and images. The idea was to pave the way to meditate on different acts of discovery.
An exhibition of this dimension and impact could only come from Cambridge, which has collections exceptionally rich, but also extraordinary and even unusual.
The list of the objects on display was quite interesting. They varied from sculptures or drawings representing artistic breakthroughs to paintings recording hazardous conditions at the Poles. There were telescopes used to study the skies and new stars seen. What might be a scholarly resource to one person may for another be aesthetically arresting.
The exhibition presented, among many other objects: ancient fossils, fine art, modern Inuit sculpture, Darwin’s only surviving egg from the Beagle voyage, a rare dodo skeleton and a state-of-the art digital instrument that searches for sub-atomic particles in the frozen depths of Antarctica.
“Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums” looked at the limits as well as the frontiers of understanding, the intersection between art and science and the connections between visionary thinking and scientifically-observed vision.
For over two hundred years our museums have accumulated every imaginable kind of artefact, art work, device and specimen. Discoveries takes us from Darwin to DNA; from Captain Scott to the exploration of space.”
The exhibition also featured the 19th century Muggletonian prints, who were a religious sect who rejected the Newtonian system of the universe; instead arguing that biblical statements took precedence over claims of scientific fact, intending to prove that the sun and moon revolved around the earth.
The ‘Tinamou Egg’, collected by Darwin himself on the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), proves that not even the world’s greatest scientists always get things right. Thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 by a museum volunteer, the egg was cracked by Darwin as he attempted to store it in a box too small for its purpose. One of just 16 eggs collected by Darwin on the five-year voyage, it is the only one known to survive.
Several exhibits were or going on public display for the first time. Others have never been exposed out of Cambridge, for instance
Hugh Edwin Strickland’s Chart of Bird Classification, dating around 1843. The chart had been stored rolled up for many years before its recent conservation and mounting and has never before been on public display.
Elsewhere, Cambridge’s position at the forefront of scientific discovery is highlighted in the Museum of Zoology’s exhibits at Discoveries including the actual butterflies used by Reginald Punnett in one of the colour plates of his book Mimicry in Butterflies which helped pave the way for modern genetics.
Spanning millennia and continents, the exhibition juxtaposed the discovery of a bronze sculpture of a lion dating c. 800 – 601 B.C. with rare anthropological finds including a Sufi Snakes and Ladders board, a modern Inuit sculpture and artworks by Henry Moore and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska that pushed the frontiers of artistic discovery in the early twentieth century.
Contemporary artworks made by Brook Andrew and Sophy Rickett and both draw on the resources of Cambridge University to exploit the cross-pollination that occurs between art and science. Rickett also had a personal exhibition at the Camilla Grimaldi Gallery with a parallel show, realised with materials coming from a period she spent in Cambridge.
The cross section between art and science is expressively realised in watercolours by Edward Wilson, the Cambridge-educated scientist and artist who accompanied Captain Scott on his Discovery Antarctic Expedition (1901-04), later to perish with him on his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
“Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums” exhibition was running from 31st January until 27th April 2014, at Two Temple Place, London, WC2R 3BD.