On Monday, January 10, 2011, I flew down to Ft. Myers, Florida, from Detroit, Michigan. It was 78⁰ and sunny in Florida, a welcome break from record snows in the northeast. I was meeting Tracie Bennitt, sales manager with Triebold Paleontology at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC), to set up a new exhibition at the Southwest Florida Museum of History.
The exhibit, ‘Darwin and Dinosaurs’, is largely based on my Darwin collection (books, letters, reviews, etc.), but also features dinosaurs from RMDRC, including a 30 foot long Baryonyx walkeri, fierce not only in prehistoric times, but difficult to deal with today. Fortunately, Tracie assembled the dinosaur with help from Matt Johnson, the general manager of the museum, while I laid out the books and artifacts in the display cases.
‘Darwin & Dinosaurs’ started in late 2008, when Mike Triebold (the founder of RMDRC) and I were talking about the then-upcoming Darwin celebrations. The year 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous book, ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859). Surely, we should do something to commemorate such an auspicious occasion. We decided to put together an exhibit that ties together Darwin’s life and work with the discovery of dinosaurs, for the two are inextricably entwined.
She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore
In the early nineteenth century, a girl named Mary Anning, who lived on the shore near Lyme Regis in England, started finding strange skeletons. No one had seen anything like them.
Gigantic reptile-like sea monsters and huge flying creatures they named pterosaurs (meaning “winged lizards”). Often overlooked because she was not a “scientist,” Anning was one of the greatest fossil hunters of all time—and inspired the famous “sea shells” rhyme.
At the same time, Gideon Mantell and William Buckland started finding giant beasts that lived on land, like Iguanodon and Megalosaurus. All of which made people wonder: How old was the Earth? How could traditional stories about the history of life explain extinct monsters?
A Life of Discovery
It was into this era of geological and paleontological discovery that Charles Darwin was born and he soon ended up in the thick of it. The exhibition introduces the early dinosaurs, then takes the visitor on a tour of Darwin’s life and work, starting with the books that inspired him when he was young, through his university years, the voyage of the Beagle, his return home and the development of his theory, the publication of the “On the Origin of Species,” contemporary reviews, later works, and a special section on Darwin in America.
It is a fascinating story. Indeed, from his childhood love of collecting—shells, insects, minerals—to his first mentor at Edinburgh University, the evolutionist Robert Grant who introduced Darwin to Lamarck; from his incredible luck getting onto the Beagle as naturalist to his fortuitous reading of Malthus when he returned, Darwin, it seems, was destined to solve one of the great mysteries of life.
“Darwin and Dinosaurs” includes 1st editions of all Darwin’s major works (including a 1st edition of “On the Origin of Species,” 1859), following his initial focus on geology and zoology, followed by his evolutionary works and finally by a number of important botanical monographs. But the exhibit is more than just books. Included in the exhibit are scientific instruments (microscopes, chronometers) like those used on the voyage, Admiralty charts, a model of the Beagle, drugs and medical paraphernalia of the type Darwin was known to have used (he was sick almost his whole life having probably contracted Chagas’ disease in South America), original newspaper reviews, paintings, and many other artifacts that help bring the story to life.
In addition, detailed information boards and labels provide context and details that help visitors understand each part of Darwin’s life and how it all led to his famous theory of natural selection.
It took us two days to set everything up (the dinosaur went up in a record 4 hours), including the fossils, exhibit cases, and signs. Finished well ahead of schedule, we then proceeded to walk around tweaking things unnecessarily for almost a whole day, right up until the opening night ceremonies attended by the museum’s foundation board, academics and the media.
We had a bit of fun on opening night. I think you will agree the following video is literally jaw-dropping.