Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration at Two Temple Place (until 27 April) is like a giant cabinet of curiosities. Maps, gizmos and memorabilia are spread across two floors of this glorious high-Victorian building on the Embankment. There are drawings from doomed polar expeditions, bones and teeth of fish from the Woodwardian Collection (see above), early botanical diagrams, hoards of medieval gold, the loot of empire (the Sufi snakes-and-ladders board in ebony and mother-of-pearl is memorable) and John Maynard Keynes’s armchair.
The exhibits are drawn from the eight museums of the University of Cambridge. Much is made of the fact that this is the first time the university’s museums have collaborated — not bad for an institution that is 800 years old. Discoveries made me want to revisit Cambridge, which might be the point of this collaboration.
The diversity of the exhibits makes it impossible to impose any order on this show; but that is its delight. The viewer is engulfed by the inquiry and invention of others. There are stories of success: such as the discovery of DNA. And there are stories of failure: such as Isaac Frost and the Muggletonians (a mid-Victorian Protestant sect who rejected Newtonian astronomy in favour of scripture). The viewer is reminded that human endeavour is a progress of setbacks. The moral is not to be disheartened but to renew one’s efforts. As Macauley wrote, ‘A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.’
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