Where in the world can you see a Dodo, Darwin’s famous egg and DNA discoveries collected together in one place?
Little-known treasures and rare objects sit side by side in the intriguing Discoveries exhibition at Temple Place in London.
It’s a fascinating look at human discovery in all its forms. There are unusual and quirky discoveries ranging from artworks and scientific artefacts to prehistoric treasures and rare zoological specimens.
Eclecticism rules in this intriguing show, the strangest collection of objects I’ve seen for some time.
Journey of discovery
My recent trip to the Discoveries exhibition reminded me of the Sir John Soane’s Museum which I visited in London a few weeks ago.
Both are ‘cabinets of curiosities’ featuring odd and eclectic items. They also display their collections in fascinating buildings which are intriguing destinations in their own right.
This exhibition challenges us to think about the meaning of ‘discovery’, not just groundbreaking scientific or artistic discoveries, but everyday objects.
Once inside the galleries , there are ancient fossils, Inuit sculptures, a rare dodo skeleton and archaeological finds.
There’s even a state-of-the art digital detector that searches for sub-atomic particles in the frozen depths of Antarctica. A modern piece of wizardry.
Which came first – the chicken or the egg? It’s a question that must have perplexed one of the world’s greatest naturalists, Charles Darwin, as he laboured to write On the Origin of Species.
The famous Tinamou Egg, collected by Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), is one of the stars of the Discoveries show.
It also proves that not even the world’s greatest scientists always get things right.
The egg was cracked by Darwin as he tried to store it in a box which proved to be too small. It’s the sort of clumsy thing I would have done but you’d expect more of a great thinker like Darwin!
One of just 16 eggs collected by Darwin on his five-year voyage, it is the only one known to have survived.
It was thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 by a museum volunteer who, fortunately, didn’t drop or crack it.
Dead as a Dodo
There’s nothing quite like coming face to face with a Dodo. To be precise, a Dodo skeleton in a display case.
It’s an unsettling experience because this bird has been extinct since the late 1600s.
Once native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the demise of this large, flightless bird was caused by the usual suspect. Humans.
Hunting, habitat destruction and predators introduced by European outsiders killed off this sitting target.
It’s shocking to reflect that human’s intervention in an ecosystem could lead to the extinction of an entire species of animal.
The bones of this Dodo were gathered by islanders with the help of a British zoologist in Victorian times. They were found in a swamp ironically called the ‘Sea of Dreams’.
The symbolism of the Dodo is incredibly powerful, revealing nature’s fragility in the face of the human onslaught. And it remains a sobering lesson today.
Butterflies and birds
Call me strange but I do like a bit of zoological history. After looking at the Dodo, I was keen to learn more about evolution.
As a nature lover I’m fascinated by how species were classified and described by the early zoologists, the precursors of today’s TV naturalists like David Attenborough and Chris Packham.
So I was pleased to find that the Discoveries show provides a few historic answers with an early foray into the world of animal evolution.
One of the star exhibits is a case of the butterflies used by zoologist Reginald Punnett. He used these actual butterflies in writing his groundbreaking book on these delicate insects.
Another intriguing exhibit which kept me fascinated for ages was Hugh Edwin Strickland’s Chart of Bird Classification, an early attempt to group together birds species.
As a bird watcher, I was amazed to discover this tree-like chart pre-dates Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by 16 years. A true breakthrough, captured in delicate pen and ink.
The chart had never been on public display before so it’s a treat to see it restored to its former glory.
Appliance of science
Scientific discoveries are a major feature of the show. If you’re a gadget geek or a science specialist you’ll want to linger longer than I did over these exhibits.
That said, I was fascinated by many of the objects, because of their beauty and intricacy.
This Table Orrery from the 1770s is a mechanical model of the Sun, Earth, Moon and planets.
When the handle is turned, the planets and Moon revolve at their exact relative speeds, demonstrating the phases of day and night, the seasons, the lunar cycle and eclipses.
It’s a stunning piece that would be perfect for my study, but this one would probably have been used for teaching in the home of a wealthy family in the 18th Century.
Polar exploration requires a very different type of discovery from art or pure science.
I’ve never had the guts to undertake anything adventurous in an extreme polar climate. Perhaps this has fuelled my admiration for explorers like Scott of the Antarctic who features prominently in the Discoveries show.
Snow goggles have always played a vital role in expeditions like Captain Scott’s. They enable explorers to deal with the extreme exposure to UV rays reflected from snow and ice.
Snow blindness, the equivalent of sunburn of the eye, is an occupational hazard for polar adventurers.
So I was fascinated by the odd-looking goggles in the exhibition, many dating back over 150 years.
Most striking were the wooden goggles used by the Inuits. But the goggles worn by Scott and his team were even more bizarre especially the wire gauze goggles worn by Dr Edward Wilson on the 1901 Discovery expedition.
Captain Scott and his men experimented with a variety of goggles, some based on Inuit designs. By the Terra Nova expedition in 1910-13, experimented with tinted glass which led to the use of goggles that look like modern sunglasses.
There is some lovely and evocative art from the Scott excursions including this watercolour by Edward Wilson, the scientist and artist who travelled with Captain Scott on his Antarctic expeditions.
Wilson accompanied Scott on the British Antarctic Terra Nova expedition in 1911 but on their return from the South Pole, the party encountered extreme weather.
Wilson died with Scott and Bowers, holed up in their tent in a blizzard. They were just 11 miles short of the nearest cache of food and fuel. They had paid the ultimate price for their journey of discovery.
Discovery isn’t just about science and exploration, particles and physics.
Artistic adventures are also at the heart of the Discoveries show with a selection of exquisite works by artists who pushed back the boundaries.
The eclectic collection includes a Henry Moore figure, Gaudia-Brzeska portraits, a modern Inuit sculpture and a print by Australian artist Brook Andrew.
There are several paintings and sketches from one of my favourite art museums, Kettles Yard in Cambridge.
My favourite piece was this Gaudia-Brzeska drawing which reveals an intense journey of artistic self-discovery.
This insanely talented artist and sculptor should have been one of the big names of 20th Century art. Tragically he was killed in France during the First World War in 1915.
Known as ‘the Savage Messiah’, his work is fascinating and challenging. It’s a treat to see several of his wonderful drawings on display in this exhibition.
There are many kinds of discovery in this exhibition. But I love the wonderful stories behind the exhibits especially the archaeological and anthropological objects.
This striking sculpture – called ‘Maria’ – represents the wife of a chief on the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
The figure was originally created to protect ‘Maria’ from fever spirits. But when she died of a severe illness, her family thought the sculpture was useless and gave it away to Hulbert.
This sculpture is rare because the Nicobar Islands had much of its cultural heritage destroyed by the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Nearby there’s a strange-looking Snakes and Ladders board, a game which originated in India about eight centuries ago.
Discoveries don’t always hit the mark and it’s interesting to discover that some are completely bonkers. So the exhibition gives a nod to what it describes as ‘discoveries gone awry’ or plain wrong.
The Muggletonians were a religious sect who rejected Isaac Newton’s view of the universe. They argued that the sun and moon revolved around the earth.
Their rival system of the universe was based on a particular and literal reading of the Bible. They believed the Earth was stationary and that Heaven existed as a physical reality.
Discover hidden treasures
The Discoveries exhibition is fascinating but sometimes it is overshadowed by the spectacular building in which it is being held.
Don’t forget to take a look at the beautiful mansion as you wander around the exhibition.
Two Temple Place is one of London’s best kept secrets and it provides the perfect backdrop for this show.
This architectural gem is an extraordinary Victorian mansion in the Neo-Gothic style built by William Waldorf Astor on the Embankment in the 1890s.
Astor was arguably the richest man in the world at the time. The house was designed as Astor’s estate office by the famous architect, John Loughborough Pearson.
No expense was be spared.
Today you can admire its extravagant and opulent interior, the stunning stained glass windows and quirky features including what was once the biggest strong room in Europe (for all Mr Astor’s money, I guess).
Don’t miss the Great Hall with its crazy carvings and giant frieze of historic characters which has been described as “Victoriana meets Disney”.
Once outside, look for the strange bulldog sign hanging from the front of the mansion, the Astor’s symbol.
Look up to see the grotesque gargoyles, the cherubic figurines, and a roof-top weather vane in the shape of a sailing ship.
This is a very strange Victorian Gothic mansion. It’s like walking through a movie set, with its strange staircases, highly decorated timber panelling and odd carved figures everywhere.
There’s much to discover inside and outside.
Eccentric and eclectic it may be but I’d recommend a trip because, like Charles Darwin, this is a voyage of discovery. A bit like the Discoveries exhibition itself.
The exhibition opening times are Monday, Thursday, Saturday – 10:00-16:30. There’s late night opening on Wednesdays – 10:00-21:00. Sunday opening is 11:00-16:00. Closed Tuesdays. Admission is free.
The exhibits have been selected from the University of Cambridge’s eight museums. It’s the first time Cambridge’s world class collections have been drawn together under one roof.
The eight university museums featured include The Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle’s Yard, Museum of Zoology, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and The Polar Museum.
Also in the vicinity are the Sir John Soane’s Museum and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. You can also walk along the Thames and cross over the bridge to the Tate Modern (12-15 minutes walk).
Credits: Images are copyright and courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums. The Two Temple Place image is courtesy of The Bulldog Trust.