I take my 14-year-old daughter to the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibition documents Darwin's life and thought, and somewhat defensively presents the theory of evolution as the central truth that underpins contemporary biology. The exhibition wants to convince and it wants to please. At the entrance there are two turtles from the Galapagos Islands. One is hidden from view; the other rests in its cage, utterly still. 'They could have used a robot,' my daughter remarks, thinking it a shame to bring the turtle all this way when it's just going to sit there. She is both concerned for the imprisoned turtle and unmoved by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels - among the plastic models, here is the life that Darwin saw. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The queue is long, the crowd frozen in place. I begin to talk with some of the other parents and children. My question, 'Do you care that the turtle is alive?' is a welcome diversion. A ten-year-old girl says she would prefer a nice clean robot: 'Its water looks dirty. Gross.' More usually, votes for the robots echo my daughter's sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn't seem worth the trouble. A 12-year-old girl is adamant: 'For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have the live ones.' Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: 'But the point is that they are real, that's the whole point.'
LRB 20 April 2006 | PDF Download