Museum-of-Every-Three-Months-or-So #4.1

I may have started this segment of the blog with the intention of visiting a museum/exhibition every week, but it didn’t take long for me to fail – mostly because my distance-learning Masters course has been eating up my weekends. Well, the first activity in the current module was to visit and critique three exhibitions, so I’ve had a busy weekend of museum-going! The idea behind this activity was to encourage us to start thinking about the assignment for this module, which involves writing a fictional exhibition proposal. As I intend to produce a natural history-related assignment, I wanted to visit sciency exhibitions. I chose Animal Inside Out at the Natural History Museum, Brains: The Mind As Matter at the Wellcome Collection, and the Kew North American Landscape garden at the British Museum. Considering that the first two of these are very large exhibitions, I was impressed that I managed to visit all three in under five hours! And I explored all of them properly, too, rather than just marching around in a business-like manner with an eye to the questions asked in the activity.

As they are large exhibitions, and I don’t often have time to visit museums (or write blogs!) these days, I will try to get at least two posts out of Saturday’s little adventure. First I will look at Animal Inside Out, the NHM’s summer blockbuster exhibition, produced by Gunther von Hagens’ workshop.

The exhibition is spectacular. The plastinated animals are all beautifully prepared and posed to show off their fascinating anatomy. A friend did criticise the stance of one of their running reindeer, but having found a BBC video of them in action, I can confirm that the gait was pretty accurate! The specimens on display are all amazing as examples of comparative anatomy, and also as spectacles. And even, some might argue, as art. Although I did find the exploded elephant somewhat comical – the parts have been expanded so that you can examine the different elements of the anatomy more easily. The result is a greatly elongated elephant, with normal-lengthed legs. Which makes it look somewhat like a giant dachsund!

It is refreshing to see anatomy displayed in this way, as it is very unusual in museums to see animals with all of the pieces still attached to each other – they are usually deconstructed, disassembled, with the skins displayed as taxidermy, the skeletons rearticulated with wires, and the organs in jars. Animal Inside Out provides a sanitised experience of an anatomy lab – the specimens are dissected expertly, but the process of plastination removes the unpleasant wobbliness and stench usually associated with dissection, giving anyone the chance to experience the world of the anatomist without having to get their hands dirty!

However, I did find the interpretation rather thin – the text panels are all very short and general. They lack the depth of detail that I would have liked to have seen, and while the texts do point out the important features of each specimen’s anatomy (with the latin names of muscles and everything), they don’t really draw comparisons between the specimens or different groups of animals on display, which is a shame in an exhibition purporting to examine comparative anatomy. Some of the texts also missed what I would consider to be important details – for example, in the case on brains and nervous systems, a small octopus sits next to the brains of several cats and a hare. The accompanying text panel describes the intelligence and problem-solving abilities of octopuses…without mentioning that they are able to do all this without actually having a brain (in the traditional sense – they do have a brain of sorts, but it does not control all of their motor functions).

Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but I did leave the exhibition feeling slightly underwhelmed. I was utterly overawed by the specimens (particularly the thin-sectioned full-height giraffe, which must be seen to be fully appreciated!), but didn’t really feel I’d learned anything much new (apart from the fact that the only real anatomical difference between sheep and goats is that goats have extra muscles that allow them to raise their tails).

Animal Inside Out is a true summer blockbuster exhibition: rather more style than substance. But I suppose that is the point…summer is the peak tourist season, and the time when most families visit museums. The national museums have a tough job to perform with their summer exhibitions, as they have to please a massively diverse audience. And certainly an exhibition with Gunther von Hagens’ name attached to it will attract a large number of visitors, simply because of the media attention and controversy that his work generates.