For 160 years it sat unnoticed, but when the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen was preparing a new exhibition it uncovered an unexpected contribution from the father of evolution himself, Charles Darwin.
A collection of 55 jars containing different species of crustaceans that Darwin had borrowed from the Danish museum in 1854 was unearthed by museum officials. Along with the collection was a list written in Darwin’s own hand identifying the species.
The museum thinks that the discovery could represent the most significant Darwin collection outside of London’s Natural History Museum.
According to the museum’s head of exhibitions, Hanne Strager, the list was a gift to Japetus Steenstrup, a Danish researcher who had originally loaned Darwin the crustaceans for his research on evolution and who at that time was head of the Zoological Museum.
Strager made the discovery when preparing for the upcoming exhibition ‘Det Dyrebare’ (Precious Things), the largest exhibition in the museum’s history that will feature items from the museum's archives that are normally hidden away from the public.
Aware of the relationship between Darwin and Steenstrup, Strager began closely examining correspondence between the two men. In one letter sent from Darwin to Steenstrup in 1854, he described a list of 77 species. The list itself, however, could not be found.
“We thought maybe the list would be among Japetus Steenstrup’s papers in our archives, and wouldn’t you know it, there it was,” Strager said in a museum press release.
Strager, who has written a book on Darwin, was immediately able to identify his handwriting. Using the list, her team was able to track down 55 of the 77 species listed by Darwin.
“To be able to display a gift from one of the world’s greatest scientists is something very unique. Here we have a personal relationship to the person who is behind perhaps biology’s single greatest scientific discovery: the theory of evolution,” Strager said.
And just how did this unique collection go unnoticed all these years?
“Steenstrup received the gift from Darwin before his book On the Origin of Species was published, putting the theory of evolution on everyone's lips. So rather than keeping the gift’s contents together in one spot, the 77 species were spread out across the museum’s collections. It certainly made good sense at the time, but today we of course would see it differently,” Strager said.
Strager said the Darwin discovery will be front and centre when the museum’s new exhibition opens on September 1st. It is bound to attract great global interest.
“It is very exceptional that here in Denmark we have uncovered a collection from Darwin himself. It will generate international attention and my colleagues over in Cambridge will undoubtedly be very excited about the discovery,” Aarhus University evolutionary biology professor Peter Kjærgaard told Berlingske.