LONDON--The house and grounds where Charles Darwin spent the last 40 years of his life--and where he drew together his crucial theoretical work on evolution--will open to the public next month. Down House, in the secluded village of Downe in Kent, has been the subject of a $4 million conservation program designed to provide insight into Darwin's mingling of science and domestic life.
Darwin and his family moved to Down House from central London in 1842. Darwin sought a quiet country house to continue his work that was not too far from London, where he had already won considerable acclaim for his biological and geological studies following his worldwide journey aboard the Beagle. Although just 20 kilometers from the city's center, Down House was then, and remains today, a remarkably remote and tranquil spot, situated in the deep folds of the chalk hills of north Kent and accessible only by narrow, winding lanes.
Following Darwin's death in 1882, Down House remained in the family until 1917, when it was sold and turned into a school. A wealthy surgeon bought the house in 1927 as a gift to the nation, and it was opened 2 years later as a museum. Many of its original contents, particularly those from Darwin's study, were donated by his family. In 1993, London's Natural History Museum took over management of the house, and a survey quickly revealed a serious state of disrepair. Two years later, the museum mounted a campaign to raise $5 million and won a grant of $1 million from the Wellcome Trust, the biomedical research charity. This secured the building and 15 hectares of land under the protection of English Heritage, which looks after the country's key monuments and buildings.
A new exhibition on the upper floor explains Darwin's earlier life and the significance of his theory of natural selection, which shook the foundations of 19th century society and transformed biological thinking. English Heritage has restored all the main ground floor rooms to reflect how they looked during Darwin's life. His study contains his library, microscope, and many other personal artifacts. Curtained off in the corner is Darwin's "sick bay," where he retreated during his many bouts of illness. "This single room was once the hub of the intellectual world," says curator Julius Bryant.