Darwin & Humanity Guest Blog

Here is a guest blog from Suzie Kennedy who recently helped out on one of our Darwin & Humanity Study Days.

As a member of staff from The Manchester Museum’s visitor services team, my job is to staff the public galleries, providing information for visitors about The Museum’s collections and exhibitions. Having studied Archaeology and Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, I was keen to find out more about the humanities sessions offered by the learning team at the Museum. I was grateful to be offered the opportunity to take part in a Darwin and Humanity study day, and on Tuesday 2nd March, a group of Religious Education students from Runshaw College spent the day at the Museum in order to further explore and understand the concept of evolution, and the impact of Darwin’s work.

Image, Students from Runshaw College

To start the day off, students took part in an object handling session which presented the opportunity to gain a closer look at some of the objects from the Museum’s collection, and explore the difference between a ‘theory’ and a ‘scientific theory’, complemented by a talk form Henry McGhie, Head of Natural Environments and Curator of Zoology at The Manchester Museum. The students were encouraged to use their imaginations to create stories and think of ideas to explain the objects in front of them.

We then moved on to the Clippy Island activity, a practical way of illustrating how natural selection works. This was the first time I had taken part in Clippy Island, and I thoroughly recommend it – who knew a few dried beans, a bull dog clip and a plastic cup could be so entertaining! The students participated with lots of enthusiasm, with many students affirming that this activity had helped them to better understand the concept of natural selection.

After lunch, I took the students to view the Museum’s temporary exhibition, Charles Darwin: evolution of a scientist. As a visitor services assistant, I am used to providing information for visitors about the Museum’s exhibitions, and I enjoyed answering the students’ questions about Darwin’s life and work. The opportunity to offer feedback after seeing the exhibition encouraged the students to voice their own opinions about the exhibition and the way in which information had been displayed in the gallery. The Galapagos Giant Tortoise proved particularly popular, and a number of students were surprised to learn things about Darwin’s life and work that they had not known before for example, that Darwin did not refer to the term ‘evolution’ until the sixth edition of The Origin of Species.

After feedback about the exhibition, Peter Wade from The University of Manchester’s Anthropology department discussed how Darwin’s work had repercussions outside the scientific community, with particular reference to the concept of race. Having studied Social Anthropology, I found it interesting examining the ways in which Darwin’s work has influenced not only our scientific thinking, but also our social and cultural history. The students evidently found this section of particular interest, judging by the variety of questions and discussions this topic provoked.

Image, Runshaw students in Charles Darwin: evolution of a scientist

The day ended with a look at how Darwin’s work can still be seen to influence our culture today. With a number of examples from the media, such as product advertising campaigns, students were asked to discuss how the presentation of Darwin’s work may have influenced their understanding of evolution. Using examples which we may all have seen on a regular basis made me realise just how prominent Darwin’s work still is in our culture today – it can still be seen all around us, even when we are not really looking for it.

I found the whole experience to be a thought provoking look at Darwin’s work and the influence it has had both for people in the past, and for us today. The Darwin and Humanity study day seems well balanced between information provided through talks and lectures, practical learning through various activities, and the opportunity for feedback and discussion. Through talks from both Museum staff and staff at The University of Manchester, students were introduced to various issues surrounding Darwin’s work, while the practical activities such as object handling and Clippy Island were well received by the students and helped to break up the day, making complex information easier to digest.

This was an opportunity for The Museum’s visitor services team to work along side the learning team, helping to provide a comprehensive and enjoyable experience for visiting students. I personally very much enjoyed taking part in the Darwin and Humanity study day – not only was it a fun way of learning for all involved, but as a visitor services assistant it meant I could make a positive contribution to the students’ visit and take with me perspectives which I could then perhaps use to help other visitors make the most of their time spent at The Manchester Museum.  I look forward to further opportunities for collaboration between the learning and visitor services teams.

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