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Human, All Too Human 2

20 December 2011

[ continued from previous post ]

Cambridge University is recreating online an experiment originally conducted by Charles Darwin with dinner party guests in his living room in Downe, Kent. In a letter written upon returning from an evening at Down House, one visitor described how “Mr Darwin brought in some photographs taken by a Frenchman, galvanising certain muscles in an old man's face, to see if we read aright the expression that putting such muscles in play should produce”.

These photographs were none other than those taken and published by Duchenne, and later used as plates in Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). For over a century the data tables collated by the naturalist were, in the words of Peter Snyder, Professor of Neurology at Brown University, “buried in a box in the library in Cambridge”. Now Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project is giving online visitors the same chance that Darwin’s dinner guests had to identify the emotions represented in Duchenne’s portraits. The results of the online poll will be compared to those obtained by Darwin and published on the Project website.

In time, data like this might enable computer recognition of facial expressions indicative of a range of emotions to inform automated teaching tools, for example, or even satellite navigation systems. The possibility that arises of a nineteenth century experiment put to a contemporary purpose is fascinating. Yet the use that was made of these portraits by author Mark Haddon at the Natural History Museum in 2009 (as mentioned in the previous post in this series) is equally poignant.

Rather than inventing biographical narratives for each of the Darwin’s photographic subjects, Haddon wrote a series of brief but evocative vignettes to illustrate the various emotions with which they are respectively associated (which are preserved for posterity in the published exhibition catalogue). His limpid narrative foregrounds the human, all too human, quality these portraits share, and – in the words of one exhibition reviewer - lends the subjects “a presence, you could say a raison d’etre, in prose”.1

1 Laura Cumming, Take that look off your face… The Observer on Sunday, 26 July 2009.

Human

Photograph from the Natural History Museum's After Darwin exhibition, 2009

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