Darwin's Canopy

Press release - 03 June 2008


In January 2008, following the submission of artists from 10 external nominators and the consideration of a respected selection panel, the Natural History Museum invited 10 artists to help consider responses to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – the groundbreaking book that revealed his theory of evolution by natural selection. At the time, most people not only believed God created all living things, but that he still controlled them – every death, every birth, every movement. For Darwin to suggest life’s diversity was a natural phenomenon – that everything beautiful, destructive, ancient or new happened without a grand plan – was radical.

The Museum will create a lasting legacy incorporated within the Grade I listed Alfred Waterhouse Building. The finished work will build on the spirit of the architect’s intention to exemplify the awe and wonder of the natural world within the fabric and decoration of the building. In particular, the work will celebrate how modern biology is underpinned by the mechanism Darwin used to explain the origin of biological variety – evolution by means of natural selection.

The artists had a two-day workshop with scientists working at the Museum as well as Darwin experts, to help them explore his life and work. They were also given access to the Museum’s libraries and collections. Three months later, they submitted their proposals. On 16 June 2008, a panel of experts will select one of the 10 proposals to become part of this historic building.

The finished commission will be unveiled on 12 February 2009, exactly 200 years after Darwin’s birth.

The expert panel will select the final work to be commissioned for the ceiling by identifying which proposal:

  • is the most outstanding work of contemporary art
  • is most sympathetic/appropriate in its response to the Grade I listed Waterhouse building
  • most encapsulates Darwin’s ideas and their contemporary significance to our understanding of the natural world and understanding our place within it
  • can be delivered as a completed work by the end of January 2009, to open on Charles Darwin’s bicentenary on 12 February 2009. 

The selection process

The initial long-list of 37 artists were identified by nomination.


Iwona Blazwick – Director, Whitechapel Art Gallery

Paul Bonaventurea – Senior Researcher, Ruskin School of Fine Art

Briony Bond – Curator Contemporary Arts, Manchester Museum

Andrew Patrizio – Curator and Research Leader, Darwin AHRC programme, Edinburgh College of Art

Bergit Arends – Curator for Contemporary Arts, Natural History Museum

Bob Bloomfield – Special Projects and Innovation, Natural History Museum

Mark Dion – Artist

Jes Fernie – former Director of Art for Architecture RSA

Margot Heller – Director, South London Gallery

James Lingwood – Director, Artangel

Jenny Lomax – Director, Camden Arts Centre

Julia Peyton-Jones – Director, Serpentine Gallery


Shortlist selection panel

Sharon Ament – Director of Public Engagement, Natural History Museum

Richard Cork – Art Critic

Sian Ede – Art Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Judith Nesbitt – Chief Curator, Tate Britain

Judith King – Art Curator and advisor to English Heritage

Isabel Vasseur – Art Curator


The judges

Sharon Ament – Director of Public Engagement, Natural History Museum

Sian Ede – Art Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Richard Cork – Independent Art Critic

Richard Fortey – Scientist and scientific writer

Judith King – Contemporary Art Curator, English Heritage Contemporary Art Programme

Judith Nesbitt – Chief Curator, Tate Britain

Sunand Prasad – President, Royal Institute of British Architects


The artists

Christine Borland, Dorothy Cross, Mark Fairnington, Tania Kovats, Alison Turnbull, UnitedVisualArtists, Mark Wallinger, Richard Wentworth, Rachel Whiteread and Richard Woods.


Project organisation

The project is led by Dr Bob Bloomfield, a NESTA fellow and leader of the art and science innovations activity in the Museum. Bergit Arends, the Museum’s contemporary arts curator works alongside him, supporting the artists and developing the installation for the proposals and the commission itself.

For more about Darwin, Darwin200 and the 2009 celebrations, please visit www.nhm.ac.uk and www.darwin200.org


Notes for editors

For further information please contact:
Nicola Osmond-Evans, Chloe Kembery or Jane Lucas
Tel: 020 7942 5654 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk