There is always a certain element of worry involved when running a public event using handling objects. First, obviously, that the precious museum objects will be damaged, but there is also a concern over how people will react to them. Especially when using dead animals. Some people can find stuffed animals quite upsetting, and there is always a percentage of the audience that is just repulsed by wet-preserved specimens. But I have usually found that, the more worrisome we think a specimen is, the cooler children think it is. A good example would be the freeze-dried week-old baby rabbit that we (when I say “we” I mostly mean the biology curator. I’m just a volunteer!) used in a museum event in Bristol yesterday to celebrate the Chinese New Year (it’s the Year of the Rabbit, in case you hadn’t heard!). It is a cute little blighter, all curled up with its eyes closed almost as if it could be sleeping, but I’ll admit there was a little curatorial worry that it might be a step too far. We were using a couple of stuffed adult rabbits, but dead baby animals are always a more tragic sight, and we debated whether we should actually have the kit on display. We needn’t have worried at all: some adults found it mildly disturbing, but most children wanted to cuddle it and take it home! They were picking it up without a second thought, often to slightly queasy expressions from their parents, even after being told that it was a real dead rabbit. Their curiosity, and innate attraction to all things cute and fluffy, outweighed any worries they had about touching a dead thing. And of course the younger ones just thought it was sleeping. Aren’t children wonderful?
The event seemed to be a huge success, judging by the number of people there, and now there are dozens (possibly even hundreds!) of Bristolian children who should be able to tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare (hares are larger, with longer ears, live solitarily above ground, and produce precocial (well-developed at birth) young rather than altricial (blind, naked and ugly!) young like rabbits), and between a rabbit and a rodent (lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) have 2 extra dinky teeth behind the top incisors, which rodents lack (anyone know why they have them? Wikipedia wasn’t able to tell me that!)). I lost count of the amount of times I recited those nuggets of information to people, but that is the nature of public events: there is always an inevitable amount of repetition involved, because people want to know the important things. It did mean that my more interesting rabbit facts (well, I thought they were interesting!), such as that rabbits can only breathe though their nose and are incapable of vomiting, went unused, but you can’t have everything I suppose!