Discoveries: Art, Science & Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums, Two Temple Place, London
Can you distil the intellectual life of centuries into an exhibition? If so, Cambridge’s eight major museums are uniquely placed to do so. Each is distinctive, from the Museum of Zoology, home of a Tinamou egg acquired in Uruguay by Charles Darwin (who cracked it by compressing it into too small a box on the Beagle’s return voyage), and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, whose founder Reverend Sedgwick bought a rare Jurassic ichthyosaur fossil for £50 in 1835, to high-minded Kettle’s Yard, where collector Jim Ede amassed rigorous modernist abstract sculpture by Gaudier-Brzeska and Henry Moore in a modest domestic interior. But all breathe the spirit of inquiry and freedom of thought associated with the university.
Many of the objects, moreover, lead double lives: as trophy display pieces and as tools for daily teaching and research that altered understanding of the world. The Zoology Museum’s Dodo skeleton found in Mauritius in 1870, for example, prompted awareness that man’s intervention in the ecosystem was responsible for its extinction, while the Fitzwilliam’s unique album of woodblock colour prints by Utamaro, collected and interpreted by Edmond de Goncourt in the 1890s, opens a window on the sophistications of 18th-century Edo.
It is a fascinating endeavour to pull such highlights together and transfer them to William Waldorf Astor’s ornate Gothic mansion in London. The result is a rich, diverse show with a strong historical arc: works recording Cambridge’s long scientific supremacy, such as Giovanni Pittoni’s “An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton” and a reproduction of James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 skeletal model of DNA, are prominent. But there are also many eclectic pieces that surprise and delight anew in this changed placement: a copper lion, 3,000 years old, found in the Yemeni desert; the only known Sufi wooden and inlay Snakes and Ladders board, brought home by a Victorian soldier in India decades before the game was introduced to Britain.