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Dan­ish museum dis­cov­ers unique gift from Charles Darwin

pub­lished 13 Sep­tem­ber 2014 | mod­i­fied 13 Sep­tem­ber 2014

The Nat­ural His­tory Museum of Den­mark recently dis­cov­ered a unique gift from one of the greatest-​ever sci­en­tists. In 1854, Charles Dar­win — father of the the­ory of evo­lu­tion — sent a gift to his Dan­ish col­league Jape­tus Steen­strup, direc­tor of the Royal Museum of Nat­ural His­tory. Until very recently, no one at the museum knew that it pos­sessed a piece of sci­en­tific his­tory of this cal­i­bre. Just a few weeks ago, the head of exhi­bi­tions was study­ing the cor­re­spon­dence between Steen­strup and Dar­win as part of her search for objects to include in an upcom­ing exhi­bi­tion. She started to sus­pect a trea­sure lay hid­den some­where, and soon a hunt was launched among the museum’s 14 mil­lion objects.

At 1 Octo­ber the museum will open its biggest-​ever exhi­bi­tion, Pre­cious Things. Denmark’s new giant dinosaur “Misty” is the star of the show, but the exhi­bi­tion will also present a range of the very best objects from the museum’s vast col­lec­tion. Head of Exhi­bi­tions Hanne Strager has long been on the hunt for some­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial among the museum’s mil­lions of items.

We knew about the rela­tion­ship between Steen­strup and Darwin.
Hanne Strager, Head of Exhi­bi­tions at the Nat­ural His­tory Museum, Denmark »

They cor­re­sponded with each other, and we know that Steen­strup lent Dar­win cir­ri­pedes — a fam­ily of small crus­taceans. We dreamed that one day we would find an object that Dar­win had bor­rowed from Steen­strup, which had then been returned to Copen­hagen — some­thing that we could say Dar­win had stud­ied per­son­ally. But we found some­thing much bet­ter,” Strager explains.

77 species in a box

Darwins gift steenstrupDar­win not only returned the bar­na­cles, he also sent a box of 77 other care­fully selected species of cir­ri­pedes to Steen­strup by way of thanks. Hanne Strager found this out by chance while study­ing their cor­re­spon­dence. In his let­ter, Dar­win described a list of the 77 species, but accord­ing to the Dar­win Cor­re­spon­dence Project the list of the 77 species has not been located.

We thought that there was a pos­si­bil­ity that the list was among Steenstrup’s papers in our archives — and there it was! It was just a plain hand writ­ten list with num­bers and sci­en­tific names, and had we not read the let­ter, we would never had known what it was. The text was very dif­fi­cult to deci­pher, and it took a while to tran­scribe the list, but then things really took off. Very soon, we had found most of the spec­i­mens,” Strager says.

Some­thing quite unique

The chance to exhibit a per­sonal gift from one of the world’s great­est sci­en­tists is some­thing quite unique. This is an exhibit with a per­sonal link to the man behind what is per­haps biology’s great­est break­through: the the­ory of evo­lu­tion. Not that it was per­ceived that way in the days when Steen­strup received his gift.

Dar­win sent it before On the Ori­gin of Species was pub­lished, so before the the­ory of evo­lu­tion was on everyone’s lips. Instead of keep­ing the 77 spec­i­mens in one place, they were divided into sci­en­tific cat­e­gories and spread around the museum’s col­lec­tions. It made per­fect sense at the time, although in ret­ro­spect we might see it dif­fer­ently,” Strager continues.

She promises that Darwin’s gift will be promi­nently dis­played when the new exhi­bi­tion opens on 1 October.

Not all there

Not all of the 77 species were found. Some of the spec­i­mens from a par­tic­u­lar genus are miss­ing. We can only guess that they were bor­rowed at some point in the last 160 years, but no one knows why or when.

Maybe researchers work­ing on the spec­i­mens just didn’t return them. And there is a very good chance that they were com­pletely unaware that what they were work­ing on was a gift from Dar­win,” Strager says.

(Source: Nat­ural His­tory Museum of Den­mark news, 29.08.2014)

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