Stolen Darwin manuscripts to go on display after anonymous return - Museums Association

Stolen Darwin manuscripts to go on display after anonymous return

Priceless notebooks had been missing from Cambridge University Libraries since 2001
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Cambridge University librarian Jessica Gardner with the returned notebooks
Cambridge University librarian Jessica Gardner with the returned notebooks

Two notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin that have been missing since 2001 will go on display at Cambridge University Library this summer after they were returned in an anonymous drop-off last month.

The 1837 manuscripts were discovered wrapped in clingfilm inside a pink gift bag, which was left on the floor in a public area of the library on 9 March. The envelope containing the notebooks read “Librarian - Happy Easter - X”.

The university had launched a worldwide appeal in 2020 to find the items, which contain a sketch by Darwin of his Tree of Life hypothesis and early notes on his theories of evolution. The priceless documents were first discovered to be missing in January 2001, after they were removed from the Special Collections Strong Rooms – where the library’s rarest and most valuable items are kept – for photography in September 2000.

For years the postcard-sized notebooks were thought to have been misplaced, but they were officially reported stolen in 2020 after a finger-tip search of the libraries’ vast collections found no trace of them.

The manuscripts were returned in good condition with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage.

The notebooks were discovered inside a pink gift bag last month

University librarian Jessica Gardner said: “My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express.


“Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.

“The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts safely returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.

“The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”

Gardner said security at the library is much tighter now than in 2001. "The building has transformed significantly since the notebooks were first reported as missing. In the last 20 years this has included completion of new high security strong rooms, new specialist reading rooms and a range of additional security measures,” she said.

The police investigation into the disappearance of the items is ongoing.

A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us. Anyone with information should call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20 or contact us online.”

Gardner examines the page featuring the Tree of Life sketch

Visitors will be able to come face-to-face with the Tree of Life sketch in July when the notebooks go on display in the Conversations with Darwin exhibition. The exhibition will explore Darwin’s life and work through his global network of correspondents. It has been curated using the 15,000 letters Darwin wrote during his lifetime.

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