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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in Conversation exhibition

9 July – 3 December 2022

Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library

09.00-18.30 Monday-Friday

09.00-16.30 Saturdays (closed Sundays)

Free and open to all - Book your tickets here

Groups are welcome - please email to discuss your visit


Meet Charles Darwin as you have never met him before. 

Darwin’s letters are a fascinating series of interwoven conversations with his many hundreds of correspondents around the world.  This exhibition opens up his life and thought through this intimate medium, and also the lives and thinking of all those women and men with whom he corresponded.   

. . . a letter is something living.
Letter to Asa Gray, 22 January [1862]<br></br><br></br><br></br>Image: Charles Darwin in the ‘Gallery of Ancestors’. George Montbard 1871. DAR 225: 178.
If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow men, he ought to do what I am doing—pester them with letters.
Letter to John Weir, [6 March 1868]<br></br><br></br><br></br><a href="" style="background-color: #536E2A">Image: Letter from the principal inhabitants of Down to the secretary of the Post Office. Draft by Charles Darwin. [1845–51?].</a>
. . . some people are so foolish as to say that your handwriting, like mine, is not very legible.
Letter to Asa Gray, 8 January 1873<br></br><br></br><br></br><a href="" style="background-color: #536E2A">Image: Part of a letter from Fritz Müller, 2 August 1866, as it would have looked when pasted into Darwin’s ‘Experiment Book’.</a>
I assure you no half famished wretch ever swallowed food more eagerly than I do letters.
Letter to Caroline Darwin, 24 October – 24 November [1832]<br></br><br></br><br></br><a href="" style="background-color: #536E2A">Image: Letter from Sarah Owen [27–30 September 1831] and enclosed pin.</a>
My life goes on like Clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it
Letter to Robert FitzRoy, 1 October 1846<br></br><br></br><br></br>Image: Original manuscript leaf for Origin, ‘Sect 9. Geology’, November - December 1858, with child's drawing on reverse. DAR 185.109: 26.
What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates.
Letter to John Fordyce, 7 May 1879, on religion<br></br><br></br><br></br><a href="" style="background-color: #536E2A">Image: Letter from Lydia Ernestine Becker 6 February 1867.</a>
If I lived 20 more years, & was able to work, how I shd. have to modify the “Origin”, … Well it is a beginning, & that is something.
Letter to Joseph Hooker, [22 January 1869]<br></br><br></br><br></br>Image: <i>Our Cats and All About Them</i>, by Harrison Weir, pp. 16. Detail. Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Our ancestor was an animal which breathed water, had a swim-bladder, a great swimming tail, an imperfect skull & undoubtedly was an hermaphrodite! Here is a pleasant genealogy for mankind.
Letter to Charles Lyell, 10 January [1860]<br></br><br></br><br></br>Image: <i>Cynopithecus niger</i> drawn by Joseph Wood with placid and pleased expressions, 1871-79. DAR 53.1: C163.
. . . it is a wonderful plant, or rather a most sagacious animal.
Letter to Asa Gray, 4 August [1863], on the sundew (Drosera)<br></br><br></br><br></br><a href="" style="background-color: #536E2A"> Image: Letter from Mary Treat 13 December 1872.</a>

Explore the Beagle voyage through the eyes of the unknown 22-year-old setting out to ‘do something’ in natural history. He carried with him a letter from a young woman who enclosed not only a jewelled forget-me-not pin but a lock of hair. The letter and pin are on display (sadly the hair does not survive!).

See Darwin’s working copies of successive editions of On the Origin of Species.  He revised the text in response to new information and criticism, much of it traced to letters.  

Letters sometimes came with objects.  On display are plant specimens, feathers, photographs, a watercolour of an exotic orchid – even beans sent to Darwin by a market gardener.

Find out about Darwin’s experience of ‘Working from home’.  For forty years he worked in his study and garden, surrounded not only by letters and specimens but by a large family.   As they grew, his children went from being the occasional objects of study to being his assistants.  They made observations, edited and illustrated his books, and helped to design experiments and equipment.