One does not normally see 2000 lb. statues in marble and bronze playing musical chairs. But that’s what has been happening at the Natural History Museum in London, with Charles Darwin and his main adversary as the only players.
The museum was designed in the Victorian era as “a temple to nature,” and it feels like a cathedral. There’s a main hall that looks a lot like a nave, and at the far end, there’s a statue on a stairway landing below a stained glass window, in a position that might otherwise be occupied by Jesus Christ. For 90 years, until this past May, a bronze image of Richard Owen, the great nineteenth-century anatomist who founded the museum, stood in this place of honor.
Owen is remembered nowadays mainly for having coined the term dinosaur (meaning “terrible lizard”), but he also wrote important papers on animals from the moa and the pearly nautilus to the ground sloth. When Charles Darwin returned from his round-the-world travels on H.M.S. Beagle, he handed over the sloth and other fossils for Owen to analyze.
But the two men later fell out over Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Owen was a social climber and a schemer. If T. H. Huxley was "Darwin's bulldog," then Owen was the snarling lapdog of the establishment opposition. And he waged a long losing battle against the Darwinian revolution. Darwin, who seldom had an unkind word for anyone, once remarked, “The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me."
Owen soon had further grounds for stoking his hatred: Shortly after Darwin died in 1882, the nation honored the founder of evolutionary theory by putting his marble statue on the landing in Owen’s own cathedral, the Natural History Museum. Owen had to live with this slight until his own death in 1892.
Then in 1927, some lingering Owen loyalist managed to get Darwin booted out and Owen moved in. And that’s how it was until May of this year: Owen presiding in the main hall, while Darwin sat in a secondary room, beyond the main entrance hall, amid the noisy children eating lunch at the Waterhouse Cafe. (Huxley’s statue was there, too, and he looked as if he wanted to be out biting someone's ankle).
But 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species. So in May, the museum plucked Owen off his pedestal, and put Darwin in his place. The statue swap took three days. Click play on the screen below to watch a time-lapse video of this historic event.
No word yet on where the statue of Huxley will go. But it might be a good idea to put him someplace where he can keep a close eye on Richard Owen.
Return to "Heart of Darwin" in the September 2008 Atlantic.