London Blog

Darwin’s Canopy

A competition at the Natural History Museum invited contemporary artists to design a Darwin-themed ceiling.

Colin Martin

As the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection approach, excitement mounts at his spiritual home, Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse’s temple to taxonomy, the Natural History Museum in London.

Prompted by Darwin’s ideas and the museum’s collections, 10 artists have submitted designs for a gallery ceiling behind the central hall. The proposals will be exhibited until 14 September, while the museum’s judging panel selects the fittest. The chosen design will be permanently installed, and unveiled on 12 February 2009, Darwin’s birthday.

Christine Borland and Tania Kovats were inspired by a branching tree Darwin sketched in 1837, the first representation of his theory of evolution. Borland proposes a sculpted tree, into which visitors would place coins. An image of the completed sculpture would be positioned on the ceiling.

©Christine Borland

Kovats has designed a longitudinal cross-section of a tree—roots, trunk, and branches—which would be veneered onto the ceiling.

©Tania Kovats

In addition to gilding the ceiling, Dorothy Cross proposes a central, transparent glass column. Containing an engraved human skull, with a foetal skeleton within the cranium, the column reflects ideas about human inheritance.

©Dorothy Cross

Inspired by Darwin’s thoughts on the evolution of the eye, Mark Fairnington would paint 12 circular canvases with eyes, from species in the museum’s collection, for display as ceiling panels.

Darwin’s references to colour in his account of the voyage of the Beagle prompted Alison Turnbull to design sequences of painted aluminium panels that change gradually from white to black along one side of the ceiling and from black to white on the other. Smaller, central panels would include bright colours, echoing the classification of moths and butterflies in the collection.

©Alison Turnball

British design practice UnitedVisualArtists’ proposal would show natural selection in action. Using computer simulation, the ceiling would become an ecosystem of plants, a reference to botanical paintings in the museum.


Turner Prize winners Rachel Whiteread (1993) and Mark Wallinger (2007) also submitted designs. Whiteread proposes panels indented with recognisable footprints, based on her idea that different animal species including Homo sapiens have walked across the museum roof.

©Rachel Whiteread

Wallinger proposes inscribing the million characters from the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1918 onto a suspended ceiling, without using punctuation, grammar or syntax, implying that order is required to interpret literature as well as nature.

©Mark Wallinger

Another artist exploring taxonomy is Richard Woods, whose design would cover the ceiling with ceramic tiles hand-printed in many decorative styles, encouraging visitors to classify them.

©Richard Woods

Richard Wentworth proposes ceiling-mounted mirrors angled in different directions, referring to Darwin’s powers of observation, which helped him formulate a coherent view of the natural world.

©Richard Wentworth

“It’s exciting that artists involved in this project have taken diverse approaches in exploring Darwinian concepts,” comments Bergit Arends, the museum’s curator of contemporary arts. “Darwin’s bicentenary provides an opportunity to present contemporary artistic interpretations of his continuing significance within the fabric of this historic building.”

The Darwin’s Canvas exhibition runs at the Natural History Museum from 4 June to 14 September 2008.


  1. Report this comment

    Scott Keir said:

    Thanks for this – I’ll have to make it down there soon.

    But, based on your descriptions, if I were on the selection panel, I’d go for Whiteread – it’s simple enough to work for the broadest audience, from the small child to the track-spotting expert.

    I really love Christine Borland’s work, but am not sure how well her dust shelves would translate. Wallinger’s is conceptually interesting, but would people be able to work out what it was about without being told (or be able to read it?). Fairnington’s is the most classical, and seems beautifully done, and would blend in to much of the rest of the Museum, but perhaps that counts against it. UnitedVisualArtists are another group I like, though I’m a bit underwhelmed by the description – is it a moving projection, or fixed? Both Woods and Wentworth sound intriguing, but I’d worry that they would overwhelm whatever was on display in the gallery.

    An interesting and hugely diverse collection though – what a great thing to be able to commission it, and what a shame to only be able to commission one!

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