Collecting Natural Selection: The multi-sensory collecting journeys of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace

by Dr. Janet Owen

The collecting journeys of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were undertaken to remote parts of the globe. They were, hazardous, multi-sensory journeys of heat and cold, tempest and calm. They were intense physical and mental encounters with alien environments: natural as well as cultural. They involved intense fear and diseases that brought them close to death. Throughout these travails they wrote how it was their zeal to collect natural history which helped them cope and gave them the will to live. For both men these journeys were uniquely memorable and life-changing. My research explores these complex experiences in more detail by focusing on two of the remotest locations on the European nineteenth-century world map: Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan which Darwin visited in 1832-3 and 1834, and Dorey in New Guinea which Wallace visited in 1858. They are places where both naturalists made rare acquisitions of human cultural artefacts as well as prolific collections of natural history specimens. Collecting specimens from the human and natural worlds provides a rare opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the drive to collect which Wallace and Darwin embody. That these took place in two environments and cultures that could hardly be more different provides an opportunity to explore concepts of deep mapping and place this in an appropriate sensory framework.

I am currently writing an article for submission to the British Journal for the History of Science about these historical, multi-sensory journeys. As part of my research methodology, I travelled to these past theatres of collecting and captured my own sensory data, which helped me to ask new questions of the historical data left behind by Darwin and Wallace. I plan to prepare an article about these travels in due course, and am working on the idea of a long-term research project which centres on the interactive digital mapping of Darwin and Wallace’s collecting journeys.

 

Film: returning from Cape Horn 9th February 2016, in waters where HMS Beagle sheltered from storms in January 1833

Film: Wulaia Bay 9th February 2016. Where Darwin collected geological specimens, Yaghan body paints and other items for his zoological collection. 

Dr Janet Owen is currently an honorary research fellow in the Geography department at Royal Holloway. With an original background in archaeology and anthropology, she works in the arts/ museum sector and is the author of ‘Darwin’s Apprentice: An Archaeological Biography of John Lubbock’. All film content is author’s own.

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