Damien Hirst’s shark may have grabbed all the headlines, but his is not the only one to feature in a major London exhibition this spring. It’s also not the scariest, by a long shot. The Natural History Museum’s Animal Inside Out exhibition has seen Hirst’s ageing, sagging sea creature and raised him a skinless, sinister red mesh of capillaries and veins, with pointier teeth and far more science to boot. Exuding a weird, malignant glow, this ‘plastinated’ shark would probably fetch less than Hirst’s at auction, but it makes for no less haunting an exhibition companion.
Animal Inside Out is for neither the faint-hearted nor those who have lost a childish sense of glee in the grotesque, and the shark is just the beginning. A huge number of specimens have been subjected to Gunther von Hagens’ famed ‘plastination’ process – a sort of contemporary mummificatiom – here used to highlight particular internal structures in the animals’ bodies. There is a cat’s nervous system, an ostrich skeleton, reindeer lungs, and a giraffe presented in horizontal slices like a perverted menu. There is also the largest-ever plastinated specimen: an elephant, presented in exquisite detail with muscles, tusks, internal organs and the odd bit of skin, as well as its nervous system laid out on the floor below. Its eyes still peer out at you, as if remembering.
There is a large amount of information presented alongside all of these almost-living nightmares, though curator Angelina Whalley and co. have stuck, sensibly enough, to the cool or weird factoids of biology. Did you know that a shark’s liver can comprise up to 40% of its body weight? Did you know that the giraffe is the only animal that can regurgitate and chew its food while running? Did you know anything about the guinea pig’s digestive system at all? All this is here, and more, and no doubt a generation of kids will be fractionally better at University Challenge as a result.
I did wonder a little, at times, about how well integrated the educational aspect and the display itself actually were. There is some text at the beginning inviting us to delve into the world of ‘comparative anatomy’, a passion of Natural History Museum founder Richard Owen’s, but though this is potentially the ideal forum for such an investigation, the diversity of the display was at times an obstacle to this. Placing two chicks, preserved with their feathers intact, alongside the skeletons of a rabbit and a fish doesn’t make the task of comparison easy, and nor does placing a cat’s nervous system in the same cabinet as a small octopus. There are, on the other hand, some fascinating juxtapositions here too, such as a well-worked-through sheep/goat sorting pun, and two reindeer poised mid-gallop, stop-motion-style.
But whether these oddly beautiful creations are really tools for science, rather than freak-show-style curiosities, is a bigger question. While it was fascinating to learn about how comprehensively a horse’s head is covered by capillaries, it was significantly more fascinating to stare vacantly at the visually engrossing model illustrating this, which was such a dense, bright red that it looked like it had been clumsily Photoshopped. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the display being more interesting visually than scientifically, but it may be that the educative side of things here required, so to speak, a spot more fleshing out.
Nonetheless, this is an enthralling exhibition containing some remarkable creations. And it’s also a hit with the kids, or so it seemed from the excited faces everywhere on my way round. There’s a sense in which you can’t go wrong with gory depictions of animals’ innards, after all. What’s more, this is, in all honesty, probably your only chance ever to see a reindeer foetus half-encased in a womb. You can probably catch a Hirst shark somewhere around the world most of the time, but a reindeer foetus half-encased in a womb – that’s something else.