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Darwin's Canopy

Exhibits unveiled for new artwork at the Natural History Museum

Exhibition open to the public: 4 June – 14 September 2008

The 10 shortlisted artists competing for the honour of creating a permanent ceiling artwork, including Turner Prize winners Rachel Whiteread and Mark Wallinger, today revealed their proposals.

The winning work for Darwin’s Canopy, a one-off, permanent artwork inspired by Charles Darwin’s ideas to be installed at the Natural History Museum, will be chosen this summer by an expert panel.

The 10 proposals are:

  • Christine Borland: We Think – A sculptural work in two phases. A sculpture of a large tree, made by scaling up a sketch of the ‘tree of life’ by Charles Darwin. The public are invited to insert coins into the branches of the tree and its human limbs, in the tradition of wishing trees. This work will then be traced in dust on glass panels, and the resulting ‘negatives’ suspended from the ceiling, onto which they will cast a shadow of the original sculpture. The coins from the first phase will be smelted down to create a plaque, embossed with We Think 1809–2009 and set into the gallery floor.
  • Dorothy Cross: Darwin Column – A clear-glass column placed centrally in the space. Inside the column, an engraved human skull, perfectly containing a foetal skeleton within the brain space.
  • Mark Fairnington: The Eyes – Twelve painted eyes from the Museum’s collection: bison, dodo, elephant, giant tortoise, gorilla, leopard, orang-utan, polar bear, rhinoceros, seal, tiger and zebra.
  • Tania Kovats: Tree – A cross-section of an entire 200 year old oak tree, cut lengthways, roots trunk and branches, to be inserted into the ceiling using a process similar to veneering. TREE is inspired by Charles Darwin´s sketch of the branching tree to represent evolution in his Transmutation Notebook. The artist is currently on a Darwin trail, following Darwin’s foot steps in South America.
  • Alison Turnbull: Biston betularia L. (aka The Peppered Moth) – A perceptual response to the story of the peppered moth, consisting of a sequence of painted aluminium panels that change gradually from white to black along both sides of the ceiling, with smaller, brightly coloured interventions in the centre, echoing the Museum’s colour-coding of moths and butterflies.
  • UnitedVisualArtists: Eden – Using a computer simulation of evolution, UVA will create an intricate miniature ecosystem, an abstract sculpture which appears to have grown organically across the entire ceiling. A central globe of light acts like a miniature sun, with the stylised, plant-like forms around it competing for the available light.
  • Mark Wallinger: word – The entire anthology of the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1918, with all the punctuation, and syntactical signs removed to create a word document of a million characters on a suspended ceiling occupying almost the entire canopy. Telescopes and binoculars will be supplied to read the text.
  • Richard Woods: Style Species – Hand-printed ceramic tiles, each with the iconography from plants and flowers, read against the architecture of the Alfred Waterhouse designed building, the artist shows how the aesthetics of the ornaments have evolved across cultures and time.
  • Richard Wentworth: Out Of The Corner Of The Eye (For Darwin) – A large number of small, round mirrors in several sizes to be attached to the ceiling, mounted like rear view mirrors, at widely different angles and dispositions stimulating the visitor’s gaze. The ceiling is dedicated to Darwin’s peripheral vision and powers of observation.
  • Rachel Whiteread: Darwin Ceiling – A series of panels, reflecting the idea that animals and humans have walked across the roof of the Museum. The panels would be indented with footprints – clear impressions of identifiable footprints, for example humans, monkeys, elephants, birds linking to Darwin’s evolution.

The exhibition showing all the proposals is the first event in Darwin200, a national programme celebrating Darwin’s ideas and their impact around his two hundredth birthday. The final commissioned artwork will be revealed as a highlight of the celebrations on Darwin’s birthday, 12 February 2009.

Opening on 4 June, this free temporary exhibition will feature art works in all media and models illustrating each artist’s concept and research for the ceiling in the Grade I listed Museum. One proposal will be selected by a judging panel of art, science and architecture experts.

All the artists were given access to the Museum’s science and library collections to enable them to explore Darwin’s ideas and what they mean for our understanding of nature and our place within it.

‘It’s exciting that artists involved in this project have taken such 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 probing of his continuing significance within the fabric of this historic building.’

Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse designed the Museum to be a home to nature, exploring the organisation of the natural world through the building. It opened to the public in 1881. He filled the Central Hall ceiling with plant motifs to suggest a growing canopy, sheltering the many animal terracotta sculptures around the building. The original decorations of the ceiling in the mezzanine gallery were lost in the 1970s when it was converted to a restaurant. The records of these decorations have not survived in the archives.

‘Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection revolutionised our understanding of the world,’ said Bob Bloomfield, the project leader. ‘The artists have a fantastic blank canvas for a modern-day homage to Darwin’s achievements. We hope to create a lasting legacy, building on the architect’s original intention to show the awe and wonder of the natural world within the fabric and decoration of the building.’

The project is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It is part of the Museum’s ongoing contemporary arts programme, enabling artists to develop their ideas through access to scientists and collections, complementing its world-leading scientific research. Most recently the programme has included Mark Dion: Systema Metropolis, Tessa Farmer: Little Savages and work by Siobhan Davies and Heather and Dan Ackroyd, among others, as part of The Ship: the Art of Climate Change.

Andrew Barnett, Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, said: “The Foundation aims to enrich and broaden people’s lives and supports projects that are innovative and involving. To this end we have encouraged science organisations to engage with contemporary art in the belief that they should commission new work that is as challenging as the science they engage in.”

For further information, please contact:
Nicola Osmond-Evans, Chloe Kembery or Jane Lucas
Tel: 020 7942 5654 Email:

Notes for editors

  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
  • For more information about all the Darwin200 activities celebrating Darwin’s life, his ideas and their impact around his two hundredth birthday, please visit
  • The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has worked with the Natural History Museum over a long period to develop a vigorous arts programme. The Museum has also received a grant from the foundation to develop a contemporary art exhibition inspired by Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The Expressions exhibition (working title) opens at the Museum in June 2009. In addition, the foundation is enabling students from disadvantaged UK areas to attend the International Student Summit about Darwin and contemporary science at the Museum in July.
  • The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is a charitable foundation with headquarters in Lisbon and a UK branch based in London. The UK branch, established in 1956, has long held a reputation for recognising and initiating innovative ideas. The foundation’s arts programme focuses on supporting artists’ research and development and has been a pioneer in promoting activities in which artists engage with science. Key publications include Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts, Science, Not Art: Ten Scientists’ Diaries, the award-winning Wild Reckoning: An Anthology Provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine.

Visitor information

Admission: free
Venue: Natural History Museum
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 10.00–17.50
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 5000 Monday–Friday, 020 7942 5011 Saturday–Sunday