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Darwin’s house: are they teaching the controversy?

Matthew Chatfield

The Ranger’s been on his holidays (did you notice?) and has brought back plenty to write about. First off the blocks has to be his visit to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin. Ever since it was opened to the public a few years ago the Ranger has been keen to visit, and this year at last he made it.

Down House, the home of Charles Darwin

The visit was partly a pilgrimage but also in response to a conversation with a friend who’d visited previously. She’d expressed surprise that the display in the museum had made such play of the contemporary and ongoing creationist response Darwin and his work. Could it really be true that English Heritage, the government-funded custodian of the house, was ‘teaching the controversy‘? On arrival, the visitor walks through Darwin’s front door into his hallway, where for all the world it is as though the great man has just popped out to check on his earthworms. Photography is not allowed inside the house, so the Ranger’s inadequate prose will have to suffice. The whole ground floor of the house is a painstakingly-recreated homage, not only – as one would expect – to Darwin’s study and writing-desk, but to how his whole family lived in the late Victorian era. A devoted family man, Darwin’s large household was full of characters, of whom the visitor can learn much. With many authentic and original pictures, documents, and items of furniture, and based on photographs from the time, it’s hard not to be transported back and imagine (as is described) the children playing indoor cricket with the housemaids along the landing. Outside the peaceful garden is set in a pastoral landscape unchanged since Darwin’s day. Here Darwin did much of his research and contemplation, and many of his thinking-spaces are conserved or recreated. A large kitchen-garden, a greenhouse complete with carnivorous plants, and even the famous earthworm-pots are to be found. The Ranger and his companion explored the quiet lawns and beds, before setting off along the sand walk – Darwin’s path along which he paced daily to ponder. The walk was evocative, and just as described by Darwin’s son Frank in 1887:

The Sand Walk

The “Sand-walk” was a narrow strip of land 1 1/2 acres in extent, with a gravel-walk round it. On one side of it was a broad old shaw with fair-sized oaks in it, which made a sheltered shady walk; the other side was separated from a neighbouring grass field by a low quickset hedge, over which you could look at what view there was, a quiet little valley losing itself in the upland country towards the edge of the Westerham hill, with hazel coppice and larch wood, the remnants of what was once a large wood, stretching away to the Westerham road… The Sand-walk was planted by my father with a variety of trees, such as hazel, alder, lime, hornbeam, birch, privet, and dogwood, and with a long line of hollies all down the exposed side. In earlier times he took a certain number of turns every day, and used to count them by means of a heap of flints, one of which he kicked out on the path each time he passed… The Sand-walk was our play-ground as children, and here we continually saw my father as he walked round. He liked to see what we were doing, and was ever ready to sympathize in any fun that was going on.

So, on to the display, which occupies the upper part of the main house. A most comprehensive range of exhibits was on display, with information about the voyage of the ‘Beagle‘, the history of the house and Darwin family, and, perhaps most impressive of all, what must have once been the master bedroom given over to a display of modern and highly interactive demonstrations of the principle of natural selection, even a giant DNA molecule with nucleotides made of metal tubing, which even the least curious could not help but try to slot together. One room was set aside to describe the reaction to Darwin’s work – both at the time and since. A noticeboard on the wall even had current newspaper cuttings, pointedly demonstrating the modern-day relevance of this extraordinary thinker. It was here that the most controversial issues were tackled, and The Ranger was pleased and interested to see that English Heritage had not flinched from these. The response of the Church, and creationism, was described honestly and without sensationalism. It finished with slightly cheesy cliffhanger – transcribed by The Ranger from the display:

The Debate Continues Not everyone accepts evolution today. Some religious faiths require people to believe that the world and everything in it was created by God. Some people – even some scientists – suggest there is a divine force at work in nature. What has been proved over the last 50 years is how much more Darwin was right than either he, or anybody, realised. Yet some of life’s deepest mysteries still remain to be discovered…

So was English Heritage guilty of Intelligent Design appeasement? After all, they rely on tourists to pay for the upkeep of the place, and a lot of these are Americans. There must be a temptation to avoid upsetting creationists of any faith and nationality. So yes, there were a few tips of the hat to the modern-day creationists – notably ‘even some scientists‘ in the paragraph above. But in the context of this outstanding display such nods were nothing more, and anything less would have seemed disingenuous. There was little danger of the shade of Charles Darwin being affronted. Never a pugilist, he would have approved of this measured treatment. Down House passes the test with flying colours: an interesting, inspiring and significant place in itself; it also manages to get over a complex and controversial set of ideas in a refreshingly human way. It’s highly recommended for a visit.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

One thought on “Darwin’s house: are they teaching the controversy?

  • The Virtual Ranger

    What a lovely article. Down House has a special place in my affections too. I took my then two-year-old to introduce her to one of the greatest thinkers of the Victorian age. All she wanted to do was roll up and down the disabled ramp. But we know where to come again for a school science project.
    Personally, I cannot see an incompatability between the basic Christian message and Darwin’s work. And wouldn’t life be boring without deep mysteries?


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