Earlier in the week I wondered what readers might make of this piece of public art, aka the ‘Shrewsbury Slinky’. Many of you picked up on the dinosaur bones, and the allusion to the double helix of DNA, both of which, we are told on the accompanying notice board, did indeed inform the thinking of the architectural designers, Pearce & Lal who conceived the structure. Some of you also guessed, or knew about the Charles Darwin connection.
Anyway, the work is called Quantum Leap, and as the explanatory board also states : “this geo-tectonic piece of sculpture has been designed through the influence of objects and materials central to the development of Darwin’s thought: rock, fossils, zoology…”
It was commissioned originally by Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council to commemorate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809, and to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species , both events well worth celebrating. The original cost to the public was expected to be around £200,000. But somehow, between the concept and its physical manifestation, things went awry on the costing front. More of which in a moment.
First, though, here is the man himself, sitting in his armchair outside the old Shrewsbury School, where as a youth he was student boarder. This more traditional tribute in bronze was unveiled in 1897:
Here you can see the 1897 unveiling. By then the prestigious Shrewsbury School had moved to larger premises across the River Severn, and Darwin’s old school become the town museum and reference library. This photograph is from the Shropshire Museums collection.
I don’t suppose many know that Charles Darwin was a Shropshire lad, born and brought up in Shrewsbury. If we picture him anywhere at all it is probably voyaging around the world on HMS Beagle (1831-1836), surrounded by a myriad of fascinating specimens, or else lost in deepest thought, unpicking thorny issues on his Thinking Path at Down House, Kent where he lived with his family for the last forty years of his life.
The Darwin family lived on The Mount in Shrewsbury. Darwin’s father was a doctor and financier, and also a free thinker. Charles’ paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, physician, natural philosopher, inventor and leading light of the Midlands Enlightenment. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, potter industrialist extraordinaire, and inventor. Both grandfathers were staunch slave trade abolitionists. Darwin thus grew up within the orbit of men for whom it was the norm to challenge and think outside the bounds of convention.
While his mother still lived, Charles and his siblings worshipped at Shrewsbury’s Unitarian Chapel. Charles also went to the preacher’s day school, and by an early age was already absorbed with his own natural history collections. But after Susannah Darwin’s death, Charles and his brother, Erasmus were sent off to board at Shrewsbury School. Later both would go to Edinburgh to study medicine, and Charles apparently spent the year of 1825 acting as apprentice to his father, and treating the poor people of Shropshire.
However, he found medicine dull, and seems to have spent his time in Edinburgh studying marine invertebrates and learning taxidermy from a freed slave called John Edmonstone, a man whose company he much enjoyed. An annoyed parent wisely chose not to press his son into the family profession, but sent him to Christ’s College Cambridge; he would get his degree and become an Anglican minister instead.
But once more Doctor Darwin’s plans for his son foundered. While at Cambridge, Charles continued to pursue his interest in natural history. When he graduated in 1831 he took the chance to embark on a ‘gap year’ to end all gap years, and set sail on HMS Beagle, travelling as the ship’s gentleman naturalist. The planned two year voyage turned into five. The rest, as they say, is history.
And so back to Quantum Leap, a project that was indubitably inspired by the very best of intentions – to honour the life’s work of a native son. I’ve already mentioned the unsuitable setting, in a cramped little garden between the River Severn and the town’s busy inner ring road. It is not a part of the town where many visitors are likely to find themselves, or even wish to be. But perhaps my main objection is the material. Concrete seems such a rigidly dull substance with which to evoke structures from the natural world. I can also foresee it acquiring a slimy algal coat, which though admittedly a life form, is unlikely to add a life-enhancing effect from the viewer’s point of view. And given all the cuts in Local Authority funding, it seems unlikely that someone will be paid to come along and scrub the thing. Where would you begin?
I’m trying to think, too, what that magician of installation, Anish Kapoor, could do for it, if called on to do some remedial work. I’m imagining something in cast iron here, or in wrought iron, or polished steel. Or even wood. Or perhaps, as Marilyn Armstrong suggests in the comments on So what’s this all about?, people will just hate it so much it will be taken down. My own feeling is that it will simply be forgotten, and that is the worst outcome of all. So much for commemoration.
This brings me to the most shocking aspect of the project. As we headed into the unveiling year of 2009, Shropshire was becoming a Unitary Authority, and the Borough Council passing into obscurity. There followed various problems with the contractors assigned to construct the monument. Costs rocketed. There was a court case. According to press reports there was a chance for the Council to settle the bill when it hit £600,000. They declined. In the end the 2012 accounts revealed that the final cost had amounted to over £1,000,000. As one Labour councillor acidly pointed out, this was considerably more than the cost of Antony Gormley’s epic, acclaimed and truly colossal Gateshead landmark, Angel of the North.
However you look at it, the final bill is staggering. In the face of austerity measures that have reduced some Shropshire residents to relying on Food Banks, and threatened so many social services, it is appalling to think of so much wasted money. But money aside, the whole enterprise now seems rather sad and silly. The original design concept for Quantum Leap has much to be said for it, but when it comes down to it, public art should serve the public who paid for it. It should be placed where everyone can enjoy it. It should be life-enhancing, spirit-raising, thought-provoking, a piece of wit or wisdom that becomes a point of attraction for locals and visitors alike. In other words, there should be returns on the investment, material and immaterial. It doesn’t of course mean that everyone has to like it. That would be too much to ask.
My other thought is that the town already has its monument to Charles Darwin. They got it right back in 1897. And although the statue might these days seem unadventurous, not to say a bit stuffy, it does at least show us the man – his intelligence, modesty and humanity – qualities that cannot be too highly valued. Not even the town’s incontinent pigeons detract from them. And so christened with bird lime he may be, but Charles Darwin looks a pretty decent old gent. His thinking changed the way we think. It took on superstition, and narrow-mindedness, and continues to challenge the scientific world to explore ever new ways to understand life on the planet. We Salopians can feel justly proud that he is one of ours.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell