The tree as evolutionary icon: TREE in the Natural History Museum, London (William T. Stearn Prize 2010)

Hellströöm, Nils Petter
April 2011
Archives of Natural History;Apr2011, Vol. 38 Issue 1, p1
Academic Journal
As part of the Darwin celebrations in 2009, the Natural History Museum in London unveiled TREE, the first contemporary artwork to win a permanent place in the Museum. While the artist claimed that the inspiration for TREE came from Darwin's famous notebook sketch of branching evolution, sometimes referred to as his ''tree of life'' drawing, this article emphasises the apparent incongruity between Darwin's sketch and the artist's design -- best explained by other, complementary sources of inspiration. In the context of the Museum's active participation in struggles over science and religion, the effect of the new artwork is contradictory. TREE celebrates Darwinian evolutionism, but it resonates with deep-rooted, mythological traditions of tree symbolism to do so. This complicates the status of the Museum space as one of disinterested, secular science, but it also contributes, with or without the intentions of the Museum's management, to consolidate two sometimes conflicting strains within the Museum's history. TREE celebrates human effort, secular science and reason -- but it also evokes long-standing mythological traditions to inspire reverence and remind us of our humble place in this world.


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