The exhibition in general is an engaging but brief work, shuffled back to the very deepest part of the Natural History galleries. Built around four to five central themes, the exhibition explores the activities of Wallace in Wales in some detail, before focusing in on his time spent travelling overseas, finally looping around to the publication of his works, and the reception of his and Darwin’s theories (with very brief mention of spiritualism included). This is a text heavy display, and frustratingly repetitive on occasion. A wonderful gallery of cartoons interpreting the major stages of Wallace’s life split the exhibition, are certainly amusing (and arguably far more engaging than the reams of text), but rehash much of that which is covered elsewhere. What seems oddly lacking though are the physical testaments of Wallace’s work, the natural history collections.
Where animals collected by Wallace are on display, they are on occasion respective of the way in which Wallace may have collected and stored his samples. A central display case makes no attempt at sentiment, with birds laid out flat with identification tags, as if part of a scientific collection, rather than staged in posed positions. Yet such displays are infrequent. Where the exhibition boasts of Wallace having collected some 125,000 species, and over 1000 species new to science, there is only a small handful of these examples for visitors to engage with. Whether this was for issues of sensitivity, or simple practicality is unclear, but it does seem a missed opportunity given the overall tone of the exhibition.
In terms of the Welsh question, the first third of the gallery is important. There is no doubt that Wallace spent time in Wales, having been born and then spending the first few years of his life near Usk in south east Wales. However, the bulk of his youth was spent on the other side of the border (albeit close to Wales) and then later in London. It would not be until Wallace neared his twenties that he would return to Wales to work, and the period in which he was surveying sites in Wales amounted to little more than five years in total. The first third of the gallery however is devoted almost exclusively to these (so called) formative years.
At various points, the exhibition alludes to the Welsh connection, with the opening text panel gambit citing ‘Welsh Beginnings’. Charting his movements around Wales, working in Neath and surveying the surrounding landscapes, this section of the exhibition ends by stating that:
‘There is no doubt that Wallace’s time working and living in Wales played a pivotal role in his development as a leading naturalist and social thinker.’
Before the exhibition ends, the museum proudly states that Wallace’s achievements were ‘not bad for a self-educated man from Usk in Wales’. While the museum does not make the final leap of claiming Wallace as a Welshman (which interesting the Independent did in 2013), it is not far off it.
Now, the one thing I suppose I should make clear, is that this is not really supposed to be critical of the museum. We have a long standing tradition in Wales of making the most of any Welsh connection we can find when it comes to individuals of repute and events of significance. What this does serve to illustrate though, is the ease with which a museum can spin and weave an interpretive narrative to serve its own purposes. In embracing the work of Wallace in a Welsh context, Wales suddenly has a ‘pivotal role’ to play in the theory of evolution. This may not be entirely inaccurate, but equally it is not entirely accurate either. What it is, is a narrative choice, one designed to justify the Welsh connection, and, presumably, attract visitors on these grounds. Wallace becomes a Welshman in this exhibition, not through such a status being explicitly stated, but certainly through its implicit telling. That is not to say that Wallace can’t or should not be presented as a Welshman, simply to say that there are a very many other ways in which the story could have been spun. The Natural History Museum’s treatment of Wallace certainly does not dwell on the Welsh connection for very long, but then Welsh connections are no priority for a London museum. In this respect, the National Museum Wales does a very good job indeed of almost telling us that Wallace was a Welshman.