Over his lifetime, Charles Darwin generated an enormous written archive and amassed a wide array of specimens and objects. Much of this is now housed amongst the various collections at the University of Cambridge.
- Cambridge University Library houses an archive of Darwin’s personal and scientific manuscripts that occupy sixty linear metres of shelving. Work is ongoing to digitise these in high resolution, but to date over 30,000 pages have been added to the Cambridge Digital Library Darwin Manuscripts Collection.
- Rock samples collected by Darwin on the Beagle Voyage are now housed at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. A project in collaboration with the Open University has created an online Virtual Microscope that allows closer inspection of these.
- The Museum of Zoology houses a variety of material collected by Darwin, including many fish, birds, beetles and even the microscope slides he created when studying barnacles.
- Many plant specimens gathered by Darwin are now in the collections of the Cambridge University Herbarium.
- The Whipple Museum of the History of Science contains a number of pieces of equipment that relate to Darwin’s work, including a microscope and an auxanometer (used for recording the movement of plants).
Many of these items have been studied by the man himself, and many who have followed him, ever since Darwin collected or created them. But now, advances in technology are making it increasingly possible to engage with physical archives in virtual space. This means we can begin to open the door, look past the walls, and experience these objects together, reunited online.
Thanks to funding from Cambridge Digital Humanities, and the enthusiasm of a wide variety of specialists from across Cambridge, we have collaborated to identify an exciting sample of items from across the University of Cambridge collections that all relate to Darwin’s work.
The items will undergo a variety of imaging techniques so that we can begin to explore how we can engage with them together in virtual/digital space. Photogrammetry will be used to create 3D virtual models of the selected objects, and we will explore using CT scanning to model microscope slides and fish samples.
In addition to advances in imaging techniques, developments in the underlying infrastructures with which we make digitised collections available online mean that we can also begin to explore how the virtual objects can interact with each other, and with us as users and researchers.
This is made possible by developing our approach to using the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework). Content on the Cambridge Digital Library platform is already IIIF compliant and 3D models can be embedded alongside traditional digital images of items. But one of the aims of this project is to use the dataset we create to explore emerging tools that can help us present 3D models using IIIF as well as 2D imagery. One such platform that is currently working to do this is Morphosource, which is being developed by Duke University in the States.
Serendipitously, the Darwin Correspondence Project will be celebrating the completion of the print edition of Darwin’s correspondence in 2022 with a major exhibition and programme of events. Begun in 1974, the fruition of this major endeavour has helped focus the selection of objects by the Dimensions of Darwin collaborative project.
The celebrations will also be advantageous in providing opportunities to explore not only our capacity and infrastructure, which will provide a model for future projects, but also stretch the limits of what we can do with virtual objects and how we can use them to better engage with researchers working on the collections, and the general public, in opening these objects up to the world.
Cambridge University Herbarium: Lauren Gardiner
Cambridge University Libraries: Andy Corrigan, Blazej Mikula, Maciej M. Pawlikowski, Amelie Roper
Cambridge University Press: Peter White
Darwin Correspondence Project: Francis Neary, Alison Pearn
Fitzwilliam Museum: Daniel Pett
Museum of Zoology: Jack Ashby, Natalie Jones
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences: David Norman, Dan Pemberton
University Information Services: Ronald Haynes
Whipple Museum of the History of Science: Morgan Bell, Joshua Nall