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Darwin (or) Bust opens today

By Jack Ashby, on 12 February 2014

Charles Darwin would be 205 today. Happy birthday to him. To mark the occasion our Darwin (or) Bust exhibition opens today, showing Darwin as you are unlikely to have seen him before. Darwins have been created out of ants, light, crochet, DNA, his own writings, chocolate and other unusual media, all imagined and made by members of UCL’s Institute of Making.

The Museum’s historic plaster bust of Darwin was moved from UCL’s Darwin Building when our collection was relocated in 2011. The remaining inhabitants of the Darwin Building were sorry to lose him, and so asked the Institute of Making to help them make a new one, from 3D laser scanning. We already had the 3D data as our very own Mona Hess had scanned him for her PhD on scanning in museums, and an idea blossomed…

3D Scan of the Grant Museum's Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

3D Scan of the Grant Museum’s Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

Rather than just print off a new Darwin bust for the departments of Structural and Molecular Biology and Genetics, Evolution and Environment in the Darwin Building, we all decided to see what happened if we tapped the minds around us at UCL; asking the members of the Institute of Making how they would reinterpret the 3D data to make a new Darwin for the 21st Century. This multi-venue exhibition is the result. A previous post explains the origins of the exhibition more fully.

The project somewhat snowballed.

In order that people could use something solid to work off (and not start moulding our historic bust) a new, full size bust was milled out of resin by a genuinely amazing 6-axis robotic arm and turntable called LaToyah at B>MADE, Bartlett Manufacturing and Design Exchange at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, to whom we are very grateful.

The video they made of Darwin emerging from this shapeless block as LaToyah ground him out is really worth a watch:

One of the Darwins in the exhibition was created by Tom Svilans, who ran part of the milling sequence on LaToyah again, but instead of attaching a drill bit to the robot arm attached a light. Darwin was recreated with long exposure photography as the arm retraced his shape.

You’ll have to visit the exhibition to see them all, and more on how they were made, but many of them are to be found here on UCL News’ flickr page.

Most of the Darwins are to be found nestled among the skeletons and jars in the Grant Museum. The huge milled Darwin is on the plinth where “Darwin Prime” once sat in the Darwin Building windows on Gower Street, and two are in the windows of the Institute of Making (IoM) on Malet Place. One of these at the IoM is a vacuum-formed Darwin-shaped ant colony by James Mould, who described his idea: “Utilising a nutrient enriched gel, invented as a habitat for the study of ants in zero-gravity, the structure will change with the progression of time, as the ants excavate a network of tunnels through their new environment. This sculpture was designed with Darwin’s theory of evolution as the foremost concept”.

The other in the IoM is made of chocolate by Kelvin Wong – the concept was to recreate Darwin in evolving flavours from dark to white chocolate (though it didn’t go entirely to plan).*

Darwin's Floating Head Cristina Amati © UCL, Institute of Making/Robert Eagle

Darwin’s Floating Head
Cristina Amati
© UCL, Institute of Making/Robert Eagle

The Darwins in the Museum include a floating crocheted head by Cristina Amati – which won the top prize offered by UCL Life Sciences for the best idea. A pensive, fatigued but indefatigable scientist – Darwin – is pictured as a floating head of wisdom and inquiry, with long beard studded with sparks of insight into the natural world. Amati says “This project explores an alternative method of additive manufacturing by ‘filament deposition’ where the filament is yarn and the technique is traditional crochet used untraditionally for geometry rendering.”

Another favourite of mine is Graeme Smith and Tom Catling’s USB stick holder. A 3D printed Darwin is the handle for a USB stick, which holds the scanning data in a particularly appropriate way. They recoded the binary data into genetic code (G’s, A’s, T’s and C’s) ready to be transformed into DNA, just as soon as it doesn’t cost £113,163 to do so. This, they say, would make it the most expensive novelty USB stick in the world.

The project has involved a lot of people who deserve the credit. As I’ve said before the best thing about working in a university museum is having all these fantastic minds around to exploit: everyone at the Institute of Making, particularly Ellie Doney and all the Darwin makers; Suzanne Ruddy and her colleagues in the Darwin Building; everyone at the Barlett who could reimagine Darwin in robotic movements; Mona Hess for the scanning expertise; and the team here at the Grant.

Darwin (or) Bust is open until 2nd April during Museum opening times. Get in on the chat with #DarwinorBust on Twitter.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

*Points for guessing why these are the ones selected to be shown at the Institute of Making, and not in the Museum?
I’ll tell you – both food (chocolate) and live animals (ants) pose a risk to our existing specimens as they can attract nasty museum pests who might come to eat the Darwins, and stay to eat the specimens.

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