The 'Emerson Museum' and the Darwin Exhibit: Observation, Classification and Display in the Early Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin


  • Lauren F. Klein (The Graduate Center, City University of New York)



This article builds on the work of Lee Rust Brown, whose Emerson Museum“ (Harvard UP, 1997) established the museum as a model through which Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings could be approached and explained. Taking into account both nineteenth-century curatorial practices and present-day museum theory, I expand Brown's model to include the specific curatorial practices of observation, classification, and display. I show how Emerson and his British contemporary, Charles Darwin, drew upon these practices in their thoughts and in their writings. I demonstrate how both men employed the techniques of observation and classification as their primary means of analysis, and how, in recording their results, they followed similar paths of display—private thought to printed notebook, printed notebook to published page.

While most critics place Emerson and Darwin on opposite sides of a humanistic/scientific divide, I contend that the Emersonian and Darwinian conceptions of the natural world converge in their mutual understanding of that world as fluid and evolving, not static and fixed, and in their attention to the fundamental relationships between organisms and their environments. While Emerson and Darwin, undeniably, reached different conclusions, my article shows how their shared methodological approach, deeply influenced by contemporaneous ideas about museum display, results, in both cases, in a narrative that links natural order and language. I argue that the works of Emerson and Darwin can each be understood in terms of a process of translation between nature and language, one in which hidden relations are revealed over time.

I also bring to light Darwin's ambivalence about the museum as a method of conveying information and ideas to the public. By contrasting Darwin's concerns about the limitations of museum display with Emerson's wholehearted embrace of the curatorial practices of the time, I show how Darwin arrives at his decision to describe the process of evolution by natural selection in the form of a book. I conclude that only with the underlying concept of the museum in his mind, and with an awareness of its limits, was Darwin able to embrace language as the tool that would allow him to fill in the gaps between his own observation and classification of the natural world and the resultant display of his evolutionary theory.