Life after Death at University College London

When Charles Darwin married Emma in January 1839, they moved into a small cottage he had just rented in London. They christened the place Macaw Cottage on account of its gaudy colour scheme, reminiscent of the birds Darwin had encountered on his voyage.

The cottage no longer exists, but how ironic, how appropriate, that the site should now be occupied by the Department of Biology of the University College London. The bland gray monster of a building that now claims 12 Upper Gower Street as its own is called – you guessed it – the Darwin Building. There is a small plaque that announces that to anyone with enough curiosity to go in its doors, but otherwise the connection with Darwin is not just downplayed, it’s decidedly absent.

On the right, after entering the Darwin Building is the entry to the Grant Museum of Zoology. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would be some sort of shrine to Darwin: it is anything but. Sure, there is the shell of a Galapagos Tortoise, which the curators tell me they think was collected by Darwin – although records are so poor they don’t really know, except that it is of the right era and who else was traipsing about the Galapagos in those times? There is a preserved and beheaded Thylacine that belonged to Thomas Huxley, and a tuatara from New Zealand that he also dissected. Yet, if anyone shines at the expense of Darwin in this dark little museum, it is Grant himself: but that is another story, deserving of another headline.

One reason why Darwin is not linked so much with this site on which he lived, is that it is more famous as a site for the dead. At least, one dead Jeremy Bentham. A philosopher who is sometimes wrongly attributed as being the founder of University College London, Bentham was nevertheless influential and sympathetic to the formation of the new university. Bentham is one philosopher who is known more for his body than his mind. Upon his death in 1832, his will requested that he be preserved and put on display as an “auto-icon” at the University College London. So, behind shuttered doors, he sits in a glass display case dressed in all his early 19th Century finery. Unfortunately, the preservation of his head did not go well and it was replaced with a model one – but for many years, bizarrely, he was displayed with the seriously deteriorated real head placed between his legs.

        Personally, if I have to look at a grotesquely preserved and decapitated body, I’d rather it be that of the Thylacine – but what I really would like to have seen is some recognition of Darwin and the time he spent sitting in a chair on the same spot.
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