Saving a place of pilgrimage

Darwin's home: pounds 3.2m appeal launched to renovate house where scie ntist wrote theory of evolution
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The Independent Online

Science Editor

A pounds 3.2m appeal has been launched by Sir David Attenborough to try and save from dereliction the house in which Charles Darwin devised the theory of evolution.

Damp and woodworm now threaten the walls of the study at Down House in Downe, Kent, where Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. The roof has fallen in on Darwin's laboratory, which is now a virtual ruin, and the roof of the main house is also leaking.

Darwin lived in the house for 40 years from 1842 until his death. Sir David, the television celebrity, said it was a place of pilgrimage for men and women of science from around the world "who must be astounded that England is so careless of the home of one of its greatest men - one of the world's greatest men".

But Sir David said he did not want the house to be preserved as some sort of mausoleum, but to revivify it as a forward- looking scientific institution. "My vision is of Darwin fellowships, for young researchers to live and work there," he continued. The house would also be open to the public to see the setting in which the theory of evolution was developed and witness science in the making.

Down House is an 18th century Grade One-listed residence with 20 acres of gardens and land. Family furniture, paintings, and personal memorabilia of Darwin are exhibited on the ground floor. The original hand-written notebooks that Darwin compiled during the five-year voyage of the Beagle are kept in the house.

But although the house was first opened to the public as a small museum in 1929, the exhibitions are out of date, the upper floors are empty, and there are no facilities for visitors, other than one outside toilet. The educational potential of the building remains untapped.

The appeal to restore the house is being mounted by the Natural History Museum. The museum has an option on the house such that if it can raise pledges of pounds 3.2m by November, it will be able to take on the preservation and care of the house. Part of the money, pounds 1m, will be used to create an endowment fund for its upkeep.

The museum has applied for lottery funding of pounds 2.4m, but it needs to show that it can secure pledges in matching funds.