Shirley Chubb's Thinking Path
In 2001, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery commissioned, for the first time, the making of a work of contemporary art '… exploring the life and ideas of Charles Darwin'. We invited artist Shirley Chubb to consider this challenge and, after initial research, she chose Thinking Path as the central metaphor for the development of a new work.
Thinking Path is a family name given to Darwin's ritual daily walk in the grounds of his home, Down House in Kent. It is also known as the 'Sand-walk'. After his early global voyaging Darwin was to marry and settle with his family at Down House for the remainder of his life, during which time he wrote 'On the Origin of Species'.
Shirley Chubb's work, in recent years, has centred on the making of new images and objects in direct response to specific museum collections. She has created installations in which she places her own work in dialogue with museum objects, which she has specifically selected. Her practice as an artist was imbued by a response to and relationship with history and museology. Chubb's experience and growing international reputation, combined with her particular interest in 19th century British history, made her an ideal choice for this commission.
Faced with a life as long, complex and hugely significant as Darwin's, Chubb was understandably cautious. I too was aware of both the difficulty and the enormity of the task. We agreed, at first, to simply begin to see where Thinking Path might lead – and to remain open to the possibilities that might unfold.
However, I quickly became conscious – as I watched the emergence of Thinking Path and the extraordinarily measured and careful development of Chubb's research, methods and ideas - that a remarkable relationship was being forged. Across differences of time, gender and intellectual disciplines, a very real 'meeting of minds' was happening. The closer Chubb looked at Darwin, the more intriguing to her he became. The connections between them included shared humanitarian and parental values as well as shared practices involving close, rigorous and repeated observations of the world. Their encounter created a very real and powerful relationship, and confounded the often divisive definitions of artist and scientist.
This interaction of different disciplines has also informed the development of this catalogue. The essays which follow are themselves part of the Thinking Path journey.
For Darwin scholars and enthusiasts alike, Randal Keynes will need no introduction. For his introductory essay, he has drawn extensively on unpublished papers in the Darwin archives to give an exceptionally clear and brilliant portrait of the Sand-walk at Down. Keynes's knowledge of Darwin's thought processes and his own extensive interest in botany combine to illustrate beautifully the special relationship between Darwin and the Sand-walk.
Graham Coulter-Smith is writer-in-residence at Southampton Institute Fine Art Research Centre and has written extensively on contemporary art and cultural politics. His essay concentrates on the formal innovations of Chubb's use of photography, both in the context of nineteenth century scientific investigation and within post modernism. He advances the idea that allegory is implicit in Chubb's practice and that this is manifest in the non-linearity of the work. Its multiple references reflect the fact that in the 21st century we do not appear to want or expect a narrative explanation with beginning, middle and end, 'just a middle that is constantly evolving'.
Sophie Forgan is a writer and a principal lecturer at Teesside University. Her essay gives a broad perspective on the way collections and museums themselves evolved in the same time frame as Darwin's revolutionary thinking. Her research allows us to see Chubb's re-examination of Darwin in another significant context, that of the 19th century when the collection and analysis of data was recognised as crucial to our understanding of the natural world.
Millions of words have been written by and about Darwin. Chubb allows us to contemplate his life through her own use of the combined languages of contemporary visual art. Sculptural photographic forms, digital moving images, appropriated museum objects and the site itself are made and curated by the artist to collectively become the language of the exhibition. In each different location Thinking Path will continue to reward the viewer with these new vocabularies and visual experiences, with which to consider the life of one person as expressed through the sensibilities of another.
Shrewsbury in the 21st century is proud of its role as the birthplace of Charles Darwin. This has not always been the case: when the spire of St. Mary's Church collapsed in the 1890s, the vicar pronounced that this was divine judgement on the town for daring to erect a statue in Darwin's honour!
Shrewsbury Museums Service has no such ambivalence. The museums' collections were founded by the Shropshire and North Wales Natural History and Antiquarian Society, which newly-formed organisation Charles Darwin joined, on his return from his voyage on The Beagle, in 1836. In recent years, the Museums Service has found a number of innovative ways to celebrate and develop 'the Darwin connection'. Our Collections Manager, Peter Boyd, has created an award-winning educational website www.darwincountry.org. A series of prestigious memorial lectures, given on the Sunday nearest to Darwin's birthday, February 12th, has been the catalyst for establishing an annual Darwin Festival in February, with partners such as the Town Centre Management Partnership, the Tourism Service, BBC Radio Shropshire and many other interested groups and individuals.
Shrewsbury's second 'Darwin Festival' in 2004 could not have a better launch than the opening at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery of Thinking Path. Since 2000, we have been, under the leadership of our Exhibitions Officer, Adrian Plant, developing a policy of enabling contemporary artists to work with our history, heritage and historic collections. The commissioning of Thinking Path is our most ambitious project yet and one which Adrian has nurtured from its inception. Shirley Chubb's initial research was supported by Arts Council West Midlands and we were subsequently delighted to be successful in attracting funding from Arts Council England National Touring Programme.
The success of that bid reflects the overall quality of Shirley Chubb's work, her vision, professionalism and attention to detail. Such a complex subject needed an artist of Shirley's intelligence, imagination and disciplined creativity. Working with her and watching her ideas develop has been inspirational. I would like to thank Shirley, Adrian and their colleagues in Shrewsbury and elsewhere, who have worked with such care and enthusiasm on Thinking Path.
As the exhibition tours, touching different elements of Darwin's life, the journey of discovery is going to be endlessly fascinating and rewarding, for each new audience, for those of us who have watched the work evolve - and, most importantly - for Shirley Chubb herself.