We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

New York Journal (2): Darwin's Garden? & the picturesque · 28 April 08

Jim writing on the train. 4/27:

Ellen left off after describing Top Girls Friday evening. So I shall begin with Saturday morning. The plan for Saturday was the New York Botanical Gardens in the morning, then the Whitney Biennial, then Sunday in the Park with George at Studio 54.

The NYBG is in The Bronx, along the Bronx River. One reaches it by car or commuter train. On weekends the commuter train runs only hourly, so careful planning is required, particularly since the NYBG was selling timed tickets to the Darwin exhibit (His Garden Recreated). In conjunction with the exhibit, the NYBG has labelled selected plants around the Gardens with their position within an evolutionary tree, tying the permanent exhibits to the temporary one. This led to a degree of confusion, since before one reached the actual recreation, one was puzzled as to what extent what one was seeing was the recreation. Even when one reached the recreation, there was no actual label: “This is the Recreation.” I suspect that’s partly because it isn’t. Or, at least, I don’t think it is. I think it’s actually some recreations of portions of Darwin’s garden juxtaposed more or less randomly. There was a segment with a label that discussed Darwin’s kitchen garden, near which were plantings of nasturtiums, thyme, Scotch thistle and kale, which didn’t seem likely to be a total representation of a mid-19th century kitchen garden.

But the NYBG is very beautiful. The grounds have been laid out with an eye to the picturesque ….

Monday morning, 4/28:

Ellen again:

Jim had to leave off here: we did find the Darwin very disappointing, a frustration. It was probably well-meant, but not thought out; or there was an attitude of mind towards the audience which assumed anything really precise and fully informative would not be appreciated so it was not necesary to do that. Or perhaps the curators just didn’t want to spend enough beyond making one central place in the conservatory partly into an English-style garden as a kind of high-minded publicity stunt to attract more visitors to the gardens. I saw something of the same kind of thing when we went to the beautiful, serious research library in the grounds and I came in upon a lecture at another small exhibit of Darwin and heard the same kind of thing: the lecturer had a spiel she didn’t want to depart from, one partly wrong in an effort to simplify and obscure parts of Darwin’s story thought obsolete or unsympathetic.

But the grounds were beautiful. When it comes to gardening, there was no condescension or laziness or lack of funds. We took a long leisurely walk around a kitchen garden (in effect—one could see cabbages, peas, and other plants growing), several interlocking gorgeous flower gardens (including dark purple tulips), pink tulip trees over a vast lawn, a rock garden and reflecting pool which rushed into another pool, which rushed into another … The botanists and people who make the gardens had worked with nature as if it was made up of elements for them to make pictures with. Jim took some photos which I hope to add before a couple of days passes by.

For this evening, more on the Whitney, a revelatory Sunday in the Park with George, and our second trip to the Met Museum (to see the Poussin again, and this time 8 Hubert Robert pictures. I will be putting a couple of photos of the Poussins onto this blog too.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. “Hello, Ellen and Jim,

    I hope the few days you spent in NYC were intellectually refreshing, culturally interesting, and on the whole relaxing. I am sure Ellen will let us know what happened during your “escapade”. This was just a “welcome home” note.

    With affectionate regards,
    Elinor    Apr 29, 12:46am    #
  2. Dear Francoise,

    Why thank you. We did have a good time. It’s good to see your note. Did I ever tell you one of my favorite painters is Hubert Robert? I just love his “ruins of time” kinds of paintings, and we did manage to see 8 of these in the Met today. I’ve seen them before, but go back to view them when I can. They are in the 18th century European furniture rooms. I’ll write about them on Tuesday :)

    What I’ve not said on the blog thsu far is how often in the subway someone got up or offered to get up to give me a seat. I am offered senior tickets in the museums. So I don’t see how old I look :)

    Elinor    Apr 29, 12:47am    #
  3. From Nick:

    “I am glad you managed to pack so much in in NY and was very interested by the account. I didn’t quite understand about Darwin’s Garden though – was it a recreation of his actual garden? or a sort of garden designed to demonstrate his theories?

    We have been to Down House and walked around his ‘actual garden’. There are a number of photographs at

    Unfortunately, we went in Winter so it didn’t look anything like this! The striking thing about the house is really how ordinary it is ; of course it is a very desirable house by most people’s standards (in terms of size, location and so on), but it is no mansion and the interior (which has been recreated as it was in Darwin’s day to the best of their ability) is marked by what one might describe as homeliness. There is nothing to suggest that from this place there emanated a world-shattering theory ; of course it is absurd to expect that there should be any such feelings, but I think one does have (or I did) that expectation anyway.”
    Elinor    Apr 29, 10:42am    #
  4. From Diana B:

    “One thing you don’t expand on in your blog as much as I wished you would, is the Darwin gardens exhibition. It’s something I’m thinking of seeing. When you have a moment could you describe it a bit more – either to me or on your blog? I’d like to know if it’s really worth haring up to the Bronx for, since every day is an either/or proposition with several choices!”
    Elinor    Apr 29, 9:57pm    #
  5. Nick and Diana have said that Jim and I had not been clear about the Darwin Gardens so here goes:

    I read in the NYTimes that the Bronx Botanical Gardens had recreated the gardens Darwin cultivated in order to carry on his researches. Jim and I were looking for something to do on Saturday; how much time can you spend in a museum, and we after all have “done” the Met, the Frick, last time the Brooklyn, we don’t like the Modern, we’re not keen on sociological & historical exhibits meant to entertain the “whole family,” and we had never been to the Botanical Gardens. The place is not far from where I grew up, and I thought to myself I would see it from afar. As it turned out, Jim said let’s take the train which had a stop right by the Gardens because he didn’t have much stomach for walking through a possible slum. From the train, the surrounding area looked very depressed.

    Well, when we got there, we discovered that although you got a timed ticket, you could go into the Darwin “recreated gardens” at any time. The signs took you to the conservatory and what we found was signs that identified parts of the usual gardens as just the sort of flowers or plants Darwin would grow and some explanation of the plant or flower itself. This was scattered throughout the conservatory and these places were “numbered.” In another words, what was usually there was given a sign and a number and an explanation which connected it to Darwin. At the center we did find an English garden, some of which really did look like plants and flowers Darwin would have grown. But this was intermixed with stuff that clearly had been decades in the growing. In front and round about this part of the conservatory were tables and chairs with exhibits telling of Darwin’s experiments with flowers and plant life which were designed so children could come up and do something.

    That was really it.

    We also went to the library and discovered a one-room exhibit of facsimiles of notebooks and drawings mostly from objects found in Cambridge University. There was a woman giving a guided tour which was filled with simplifications and not really precise when it came to telling how Darwin came say to take a trip on the Beagle and also anachronistically told. So Henslowe was described as Darwin’s teacher at Cambridge for all the world as if Darwin was a student of science, not theology, and Henslowe his teacher giving him credit instead of a friend and clergyman of the type who had a lot of free time on his hands. She told no falsehoods, but the effect was confused. At the library (a serious research place), at the cafeteria and other places around the park, there were also signs proclaiming the Darwin recreated gardens were in the conservatory.

    So I think someone had the bright and well-meaning idea to bring visitors to the gardens by pretending to create an exhibit that really wasn’t quite there. The Botanical gardens is a place where evolutionary knowledge is central to their project (a statuary in the front of the library is about evolution) so to present Darwin in a positive way to the American public (which often is given an portrait of an ogre or very strange person when it comes to Darwin) is all to the good. We noted they also make money by having weddings in one of their nooks, and selling space in another place for receptions.

    It worked to bring Jim and I, and we did enjoy the experience of the place as a whole, if we didn’t learn anything much about Darwin. For a Saturday the place was underpopulated. In comparison, everywhere in Manhattan was overrun with people. It was quiet and pretty.

    I should probably say that for about 5 years I taught Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle to a junior level class in English. We read an abridged version of the book and parts of some of Darwin's more famous accessible papers. I've read a number of biographies, some of his letters, and good books on separate issues (including the Beagle itself). So I am knowledgeable about Darwin and this probably motivated me to want to go to the exhibit and was partly responsible for my disappointment. Jim likes to read about Darwin too.

    Elinor    Apr 29, 10:54pm    #
  6. I’ve read some of Darwin’s works so I was interested in your visit to the garden. I have seen a letter in Torquay Museum from Darwin to the secretary of the time (yes, it was before my tenure as Hon. Sec). It was addressed from Beckenham in Kent, where he lived. It came as a shock because I’d lived here two for 290 years and only found out when I came home to Devon. Somehow it spurred me on to read more Darwin.
    Clare shepherd    Apr 30, 3:12pm    #

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