Page last updated at 01:34 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

At home with Darwin... 200 years on

By Christine McGourty
Science correspondent, BBC News


Inside Charles Darwin's Kent home

Charles Darwin's home, Down House , in Kent, is set to reopen to the public this week with a new permanent exhibition marking the bicentenary of his birth.

The country mansion has been closed for renovations, but the house and extensive gardens have now been restored in a project led by English Heritage.

Many of the rooms contain original furniture and artefacts giving a true flavour of Darwin's life as a country gentleman, family man and scientific revolutionary.

Charles Darwin (Getty Images)
Darwin moved to Down House in 1842, and stayed until his death

Darwin moved to the village of Downe with his wife Emma in 1842, six years after returning from his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. He lived and worked there for four decades, until his death. It was here that he wrote many of his groundbreaking works including On The Origin of Species.

His great, great granddaughter Sarah Darwin, a biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, is hugely impressed with the results: "It's very evocative. I think you get a very strong feeling of his family life here," she said.

"He was living and working at home and you can imagine the noise his children would have made. The house would have been very alive with people and ideas."

Potting balls

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, chairman of English Heritage, said the new 1m exhibition - on the first floor of the house - aimed to bring the man and his ground-breaking theories to life.

Darwin's study
It was here that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species

"It places Down House firmly on the international map as one of the world's most important scientific heritage sites."

The exhibition combines rare original material with hi-tech displays and a multimedia tour narrated by natural history filmmaker Sir David Attenborough and the broadcaster Andrew Marr.

There is a full-size recreation of Darwin's cramped cabin during his long voyage on the Beagle.

The ground floor includes several rooms that provide insights into Darwin's life as a family man and a ground-breaking scientist.

Billiard room
Down House was a family home as well as a place of study

Darwin potted balls in the billiard room with his butler. The dining room includes the original Wedgwood dinner service that Darwin inherited from his mother Susannah Wedgwood.

In another room is the piano played by Darwin's wife, Emma, who was taught by the famous composer Chopin. And on top of the piano are a pair of plant pots - Darwin used to have his wife and children play music to earthworms and study the effect it had on the creatures.

Space and peace

The gardens and greenhouse have been restored too and Sarah Darwin said they played a critical role in Darwin's life and work.

"l think having the space, having the countryside literally on the doorstep enabled him to go out into the field and look at things," she explained.


My great-great-grandfather Darwin

"Darwin was basically the father of biology and he used this area and indeed the whole of Britain as his living laboratory. He's really better known for his time in the Galapagos but this is where he spent 40 years of his life.

"He was one of a long line in this country of amateur scientist naturalists. We need to encourage young people to come to places like Down House. You don't have to go to the Galapagos or the Amazon rainforest to find things. They're here in our back gardens."

Darwin's home at Downe was close to the capital but provided a sanctuary for him to work in peace, and provide space for his large family - seven of his 10 children lived to adulthood.

Darwin Season 2009

Jenny Cousins of English Heritage said: "We have a real mixture of objects here, things that he took on board the Beagle like his Panama hat.

"We have a first edition of the Origin of Species, and also very personal items like his wedding ring and handkerchief.

"If you want an insight into how Darwin thought, it seems to me that the sensible thing is to come here where he worked and wrote, see the things that Darwin saw and get a sense of how he really lived here."

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