Evidences of Evolution Exhibit in Horniman Museum

Detail from Embryology case. Evidences of Evolution exhibit in Natural History Gallery in Horniman Museum, London

The Evidences of Evolution exhibit in the Natural History Gallery at Horniman Museum and Gardens presents British evolutionary studies as it stood in the early 1920s. The exhibit builds on an earlier Horniman display, “History of Animals,” which itself closely followed exhibition designs by George Carpenter on evolution and geography of animals from the late 19th century. The focus is squarely on comparative anatomy illustrated through presentations of skeletons, dissections of preserved or “wet” specimens, and high-quality anatomical models. The comparative approach to zoological instruction was common in British natural history galleries across the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as at university museums like UCL, CambridgeOxford, Manchester, and Reading, as well as municipal museums such as Liverpool, Booth Museum of Natural History, and Tring

Evidences of Evolution was one of four natural history exhibits at the Horniman reorganised at the Horniman after the Great War. The other exhibits were Locomotion of Animals, Defences of Animals, and Survey of the Animal Kingdom. Each received new interpretation, new design, and new printed visitor guides. The guide for Evidences of Evolution was published last in the sequence:

The evolution displays rely heavily on Darwin’s (1859) Origin of Species for their intellectual structure: comparative anatomy, variation under domestication and in nature, classification, and sexual selection. The most significant addition of subjects during modernisation were themes new to the first decades of the 20th century: embryology (cases 92-94, using Ziegler Studio wax models) and Heredity-Mendelism (case 91). Displays focusing on evolution of the horse (cases 83, 84-86) and evolution of the elephant (cases 79-81, 82) were refreshed through recent significant research monographs published in the palaeontological community.

Evidence of Evolution exhibit in Natural History Galler. On far wall are cases 60-64. On foreground left are cases 79-81 (Evolution of the Elephant) and foreground right are cases 84-86 (Evolution of the Horse). Two dioramas foreground central are not part of the evolution exhibit.

Missing from Evidences of Evolution is an explicit presentation of natural selection as a driver for adaptation or divergence. Adaptation is a major theme in both Defences of Animals and Locomotion of Animals. For instance, Defences of Animals provides examples of camouflage and mimicry. Themes such as these are reiterated throughout Survey of the Animal Kingdom, too. However, the causes of adaptation are not discussed. This might be owing to disagreement amongst English naturalists in the 1920s as to the cause of adaptation, and natural selection was by no means thought to be the clear winner in such arguments.

In the exhibit’s 1928 Handbook, the museum’s zoologist Henry Neal Milligan drew a familiar distinction between evolution as a set of facts in nature versus various theories created by scientists to explain those facts. He stressed the value of public knowledge on the facts but reserved for experts the job of discussing likely modes and mechanisms, citing disagreement and lack of consensus (page 12). This separation explains the lack of coverage of natural selection, per se, in the exhibit, as well as its overall emphasis on “evidence”. Also relevant, the exhibit opened only three years after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in the US, followed closely in British popular press and lingering in conversations about science education. Natural selection is preferred amongst the various theories presented in the theories section of Milligan’s Handbook. The lack of re-conceptualisation during Gallery modernisations in the 1960s is evidenced by the absence of treatments about natural selection, certainly considered the dominant mode of evolution by British zoologists in that decade.

Though each exhibit in the gallery is self-contained, all contribute to a broader evolutionary vision. Specific positioning of certain cases and items will strike historians of evolutionary studies as well worth analysis.

Evidences of Evolution was refreshed in the early 1960s with new graphic design and a new colour palate, but the intellectual content of the exhibit was not altered. In contrast to other visitor guides,  Milligan’s 1928 handbook for the evolution exhibit was not revised during the 1960s gallery modernisation. Case contents are unchanged with several notable exceptions. One exception has been the removal of some human skeleton materials from embryology (case 92-94) and structure 3 skeletons (case 61-62). A visitor in 2022 experiences this exhibit pretty much as it appeared when re-opened in the 1960s. Other elements of the Natural History Gallery have changed significantly over this period, most notably the material today encompassed by Evolution of Man.


Exhibit cases in Evidence of Evolution

With apologies for glare and variation owing to lighting levels, reflection, and constraints while capturing images. Some detailed close-ups also are available (links below). All images are CC-BY-NC.


Floor plan of Evidence of Evolution

Evidences of Evolution floorplan. Natural History Gallery, Horniman Museum, London. ProfJoeCain 2022

Cases associated with the Evolution exhibit cluster on the east side of the Natural History Gallery ground floor. A list of cases in the Evolution exhibit is provided below. A floor plan and list of cases for the whole Natural History Gallery is available, too.


Evidences of Evolution exhibit, from case 60 onwards in Natural History Gallery in Horniman Museum
Evidences of Evolution exhibit, from case 60 onwards in Natural History Gallery in Horniman Museum

Main Themes in Evidence of Evolution

Evidences of Evolution relies heavily on what should be called a modified outline from Charles Darwin’s (1859) Origin of Species. A series of cases along the east wall of the gallery present vertebrate comparative anatomy (structure), then variation of animals under domestication and variation in nature. Nearby cases add illustrations of speciation as seen through classification as well as spectacular illustrations of sexual selection. Phylogeny is illustrated with two examples: horses and elephants.

Visitors to the Natural History Gallery can easily merge cases from adjacent exhibits into the core narrative about evidences of evolution. This is especially easy for cases from Survey of the Animal Kingdom including monkeys, apes, and humans, with cases adjacent to the Evidences of Evolution cases. It also is easy for displays from Evolution of Man.

Evidences of evolution: structure

  1. Teeth and footbones
  2. Skulls
  3. Skeletons (mammals compared in case 6-62; birds compared in case I)
  4. Evolution of vertebrate skulls
  5. Brains
  6. Sense organs and viscera
  7. Vestigial organs

Evidences of evolution: variation

  1. Variation under domestication (pigeons)
  2. Variation under domestication (dogs)
  3. Variation in nature

Evidences of evolution: other

  1. Classification
  2. Embryology

The embryology cases display Ziegler wax models from the late 19th century. Other embryological models are on display in the Aves section of Survey of Animal Kingdom.

Examples of evolution in a group

  1. Evolution of the elephant
  2. Structure of the elephant tooth
  3. Evolution of the horse
  4. Varieties of Equus skeleton

Mechanisms of evolution

  1. Sexual selection 1: primary sexual selection and secondary sexual selection
  2. Sexual selection 2
  3. Heredity – Mendelism


List of Cases in Evidences of Evolution Exhibit