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Thinking Path
Shirley Chubb

Published by Shrewsbury Museums Service, 2004
© Shrewsbury Museums Service
ISBN 0 9500242 4 4


  1. FROM: RANDAL KEYNES - The Sand-walk
  2. FROM: GRAHAM COULTER-SMITH - Allegory and Evolution
  3. FROM: SOPHIE FORGAN - Darwin and the Museum

The Sand-walk

(p 16)
Darwin used the Sand-walk for the daily 'constitutionals' he took for his chronic ill-health. He was often weak and sometimes found the exercise an effort, but drove himself to make a set number of circuits every morning, noon and afternoon. He kept a small pile of flints next to the forked ash, and would lick one aside as he passed each time, to count his laps. He went out in all weather except the worst; one January morning when he was sixty-six, Emma wrote to Henrietta that he 'couldn't get to the Sand-walk yesterday from snow drifts'.

(p 16)
Emma or one of their children would often walk with him. After the death of his young daughter Annie in 1851, he remembered how 'when going round the Sand-walk with me, although I walked fast, yet she often used to go before, pirouetting in the most elegant way, her dear face bright all the time with the sweetest smiles.'

(p 18)
Darwin noted down many observations that he made on the Sand-walk. There is a pattern in what he saw, a pattern which shows one of his special qualities as a naturalist and thinker. Small details in a clump of plants or the traces of a bird or insect, points that others without his interests would not have noticed, strange features and happenings noticed with fascination and examined with close care. Each clue then fitted into an intricate framework of possibilities and conjectures that he kept in mind at all times, a framework that eventually arched over the whole natural world and offered vantage points for insights into its deepest workings.

(p 21)
For many years science had been Darwin's passion, but it was also in an important sense his distraction, from the pain of his chronic illness and the stress of his other haunting concerns. In the last years he sensed that he was weakening and saw the time approaching when he would not be able to work. His daily circuits of the Sand-walk became one of the ways he willed himself to carry on. In the early spring of 1882, he told Emma that for the last ten days he had had some pain in the heart nearly every afternoon while or after walking. He kept on with his routine, but a few days later he had a sharp fit of pain in the Sand-walk and got home with difficulty. After that, he could not go out again but fell into a restless depression. Unable to take his walks, he felt as if he had had his deathblow, and told Emma that he did not expect to work again. He died three weeks later.

Darwin's grandson Bernard was a young child at the time, and found in later life that he was uncertain about his memories of his grandfather. 'All I can recall clearly are one or two little walks that I went with him in solitary splendour, memories so mild and dull that they must be my own because no-one could have invented them for me. …Only the day of his death is vivid enough. My father told me very gently that he had been ill and that I should not see him again; but I, aged five and a half, though sorry and awe-stricken, felt bound to explain that I knew all about deadness. Then we went out for a walk, seeing my aunts crying in the drawing-room as we went by the long windows, and subsequently picked Lords-and-ladies in the little wood which is called the Sand-walk.'

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Shirley Chubb's Thinking Path: Allegory and Evolution

(p 27)
There is something innately ritualistic in Chubb's retracing of Darwin's footsteps on days so fundamental to his life. It is as if she were attempting to weave herself into his life, and to an extent that is what she does. In addition, she also reawakens the past by entwining it with the world in which she lives, a world in which the self-image of human beings has been significantly altered by the conclusions Darwin drew from his many thoughtful walks along the path at Down House.

(p 27)
Another dimension of Thinking Path is Darwin's home, Down House, and the fact that this was where he brought together the manifold of data he had accumulated during the voyage. Darwin set sail on the Beagle in 1831 when he was twenty-two years old. The voyage lasted five years. He married several years after his return in 1839, and between 1839 and 1856 his wife bore ten children two of whom died soon after birth. Origin of Species was published in 1859, and Chubb is particularly interested in the fact that for all those years following his return when he was working on this monumental treatise the Darwin's household would have been swamped with young children. As we all know, Victorian fathers were not renowned for their empathy with children (one is reminded of the Victorian adage 'children should be seen and not heard'), but apparently Darwin was devoted to his children and let them participate in some of his studies.

This human dimension appeals to Chubb presumably because it mitigates the fundamental analytical reductionistic processes that define scientific research, especially in the nineteenth century—processes reflected in Chubb's use of gridded arrays of images and lenses. As a counterpoint to this analytical background Chubb's imagery explores her notion that Darwin 'travelled and experienced in order to fully understand the richness on his own doorstep'. This domestic theme is evident in the profusion of images of the garden at Down House, including flora that competes in the context of Thinking Path with the exotic images related to the voyage of the Beagle. It is also evident in scenes of Darwin's study and photographs of his family. Chubb even inserts photographs of her own family thereby interconnecting the concept of domesticity and family with the larger theme of reproduction and evolution. And, of course, the domestic setting is constantly underscored by Chubb's leitmotif of the path.

Chubb focused on Darwin's walks along the 'Thinking Path' at Down House for a variety of reasons. The path symbolises the fact that Darwin's epic and exotic voyage in the Beagle was continued in his meditations as he walked the path. The path also signifies evolution itself and the capacity for self-reflection that is such a crucial aspect of human consciousness—which, as far as we know, is the pinnacle of evolution. And, lastly, the path led in the end to the publication of the momentous Origin of Species.

(p 28)
Darwin would not have been aware, of course, that his theory of evolution can be pursued beyond life into the molecular domain of chemicals such as DNA. But Chubb's portrayal of photo-micrographs of bacteria and viruses and diagrams from molecular biology, plus her photographs of stars, galaxies and spiral nebulas, show that we now know that the processes of evolution extend far beyond what we call 'life'.

(p 28)
Since Darwin the concept of 'God' has become much more mysterious. Perhaps this is why the twentieth century is fundamentally marked by the growth of pictorial and narrative forms that abjure coherence and idealised wholes for the possibilities inherent in a more dynamic discourse of fragments, a discourse epitomised in the visual domain by the infinite flood of images that characterise the televisual: a Russian doll-like endless series of boxes producing an endless series of images.

(p 28)
One of the most striking features of Chubb's Thinking Path is the fact that it is essentially a collection of predominantly photographic fragments. The four parts composed of twenty sets of twenty small images hang on the gallery walls like alien insect eyes, each of the 1600 images covered by a rectangular lens. From a distance the images possess a cinematic fluidity, splintering representation into multiple points of view. And when we move closer we see the small images enlarged and imbued with the illusory physicality bestowed by the curvature of the lens. They seem to reflect the way in which, over centuries, scientific instruments have vastly expanded our vision of the world and how their introduction into visual culture has brought this expanded vision into the everyday through photography, film, print media and television.

(p 29)
Allegory epitomises the discourse of fragments especially in the sense of Walter Benjamin's formulation which has been so succinctly outlined by Peter Bürger, who analysed Benjamin's theory of allegory into three stages, but only two are required here:

  1. The allegorist pulls one element out of the totality of the life context … Allegory is therefore essentially fragment and thus the opposite of the organic symbol.
  2. The allegorist joins the isolated reality fragments and thereby creates meaning. (Bürger 1984: 69)

A fundamental problem appears immediately in that, after Benjamin, Bürger speaks of the 'totality of the life context'. 'Totality' suggests that life-praxis is a coherent whole. This may be the case in Hollywood films but life-praxis is far from coherent, it is multi-layered, constantly changing and riddled with chance and contradiction. In this sense the discourse of fragments that is allegory can be understood as a more accurate portrayal of our experience of the world than the classical narrative with its neatly organised beginning middle and end. Chubb's leitmotif of the path which runs through her eighty panels might be an attempt to instil some kind of continuity. But it is more like an Ariadnean thread twisting and turning through a labyrinth of information.

(p 30)
In this post-classical, or postmodern approach to narrative the observer (Chubb and ourselves) is immanent in what she or he observes not transcendent over it (in a God-like manner), and there is no beginning or end, just a middle that is constantly evolving. It is true that Chubb's Thinking Path implies an end because she uses the static discourse of photography as her primary means of expression. But she reports that her image arrays have undergone innumerable rearrangements and could continue to be rearranged forever if she hadn't had to exhibit them at some point. Yet there is also a sense in which these static panels do not have an end because like a video loop we can come back to them again and again and find new facets and connections we had not seen before.

Thinking Path is like a film laid out frame by frame, which is quite different from motion pictures. Motion pictures fly by at twenty-four frames a second and the viewer is forced into a position similar to that of the fixed viewpoint demanded by Renaissance perspective. We sit and watch and have no control over the sequence of images. In Thinking Path on the other hand, because the images are laid out like a table the viewer has control over the sequence in which they are seen. The viewer's interaction can alter the sequence and the connection of one image to another. So in this sense, like evolution, Thinking Path does not have a beginning or an end, just a constantly changing middle.

(p 31)
Chubb's previous works such as Hold and Ubique have used items selected from museum collections as a starting point for works of art. Her focus on Darwin in Thinking Path is an elaboration on this approach and will include items selected from collections, such as the wonderfully poetic fossil of wave patterns on sand. Her work is steeped in history while being simultaneously concerned with bringing the historical into the living present: for example, her strategy of interacting with museums is very much part of the contemporary installationist movement which is the most recent manifestation of a long-standing critical interrogation of the institutional structures of art.

There appear to be two sides to Chubb's involvement with museums: firstly, there is her interweaving of history into the present; secondly, there is a desire to expand the potential contexts of art. Her work effectively questions the supposition that art should be exclusively cloistered in the sanctuary of the art museum. By focusing on non-art museums she is contributing to a widening of our notion of the ways in which art can be situated within our culture.

(p 31)
Chubb's work is an implicit critique of the art gallery as sanctuary, but it is also more complex than that because she also plays with the notion of the museum as sanctum. Chubb's focus on non-art museums is related to the fact that these institutions allow the living to have communion with the relics of their forebears. Museums open up our consciousness to the course of natural and human evolution by allowing us contact with fragments from the past.

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Darwin and the Museum

(p 37)
When Darwin was born in 1809, there were just a handful of museums in Britain, headed by the rather inaccessible British Museum in London and the venerable Ashmolean in Oxford. By the time he left in 1831 on the Beagle voyage, the number had begun to increase rapidly, and included learned society museums together with a few commercial museums and university collections. By the time Darwin died in 1882, nearly every major town in Britain could boast a public museum, often alongside a municipal art collection. The unstoppable growth in the number of museums - there were some 250 natural history museums of some type or other in Britain by the end of the century - meant that for the first time there was a variety of reputable destinations for the disposal of collections other than the saleroom.

(p 37)
Darwin started his scientific career in the time-honoured manner, as a collector. His Autobiography recounts a boyhood passion for collecting. He admitted to a youthful pleasure in possession and the excitement of pursuing an unknown specimen, both classic collector traits, exemplified indeed in the now famous incident at Cambridge when he popped a beetle in his mouth in order to have a spare hand to catch a rare new one.

(p 37)
The Beagle collections were spectacular, exotic, varied, problematic, and contained numerous rarities and new species. He collected furiously throughout the voyage, sending parcels of specimens home at regular intervals, some direct to Henslow in Cambridge and some to William Clift at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. He worried about the final destination of the specimens, feeling that the majority should go to the British Museum as he was on a Royal Navy vessel, but wanted to ensure that they would end up where they would be most useful and build upon relevant existing collections. While he observed everything on the voyage in minute detail, making extensive notes and sketches, not surprisingly he was quite unable to digest and analyse everything that he had collected. He therefore sent specimens to different scientific experts for precise description, though he confessed to feeling grieved at losing his trophies: “I should feel like a knight who had lost his armorial bearings”. In part this was because the range was so large, including prehistoric fossils, geological specimens, mammals, reptiles, birds, plants, crustacea, insects, not to forget his observations on native peoples.

(p 37)
What the Beagle collections did provide was "cultural capital", a sort of intellectual and material bank balance to fund his career. Darwin's specimens represented both his collecting expertise and his intellectual credentials, the latter revealed in the questions that he posed about them. And Darwin "had questions enough for a career". The collections provided him with a springboard for entry into metropolitan scientific society. They enabled him to be proposed for membership of the relevant learned societies, to start presenting papers, and then to publish.

(p 38)
If the Beagle collections gave Darwin the 'capital' to start a scientific career, unlike most collectors he did not hang on to them. An experimentalist as well as a collector, Darwin collected 'facts' above all, filing them away in little boxes in his mind just as collectors boxed and filed away their specimens. Most of his specimens ended up in museums where the work of agreeing names and proper classification was carried on.

(p 40)
Museums were like encyclopaedias, containing as it were the sum of current knowledge. Indeed in the mid-century it was generally believed that museum collections would soon be 'complete', though museums demonstrated a regrettable tendency to fill up more rapidly than their creators had anticipated and completion became a distant ideal. Nonetheless Darwin believed, along with many others, that museums with their immense and varied collections would eventually yield all the answers. Sheer accumulation of specimens and facts would prevail.

(p 40)
However during the latter part of Darwin's life the main focus of research in the life sciences was moving away from the museum to the laboratory. For Darwin himself this did not matter, as his home and garden were his experimental laboratories and his book-lined study his manufactory. He did not need a museum at Down House as he could easily call on other collections or form an appropriate one if necessary. Everything he required for experimental work was at hand.

(p 41)
Down House too became a shrine where Darwin and his legacy could be contemplated. The personality museum is a 20th century development, particularly popular in the case of literary figures such as the Brontes, Wordsworth or Keats, but includes a number of scientists, for example Newton, Jenner and the Herschels. For many scientists their memorial is in the institution where they worked, commemorated in plaques on the wall or in the names of buildings and laboratories. Down however epitomises much of what it was to be a gentleman-naturalist in the 19th century. The study remains, the books, bottles, little boxes and specimens cover the table, the microscope at the ready, so that the visitor might almost feel that Darwin has just left the room.

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