“No animals were killed for the purpose of plastination”
Phew!! That’s the first burning concern quashed before I begin my walk around Animal Inside Out, an exhibition by the same team who, led by Gunther von Hagens, brought us Body Worlds. But what exactly is “plastination“? If you haven’t Googled the exhibition before showing up, don’t expect it to explain that just yet.
Well, that aside, let’s see what it has to offer.
The exhibition opens up with a short introduction to the concept of comparative anatomy, encouraging visitors to practice this skill of observing differences and similarities between the various animals displayed throughout. An example is made of Sir Richard Owen, the comparative anatomist who campaigned for the natural history collection of the British Museum to become a separate collection, leading to the building of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington in London, where the exhibition is currently being held.
Easing you in gently, the first room has a wonderful – but nothing out of the ordinary – display of a range of cuttlefish, drawing attention to the similarities between human eyes and those of the squid (I’m already beginning to feel like a novice comparative anatomist). I love how there are mirrors on the bottom of the display cabinets so the reflection reveals the detail of the creature’s underside. Now, despite there being a huge squid, split in half, displayed inside a glass cabinet along the length of one wall, I can’t help getting distracted by the bright red shark, suspended in a mid-swim pose, in a cabinet at the end of the room.
On closer inspection, it is in fact a squaliform bundle of blood capillaries, with eyes and teeth, and that’s it. There are several other animals, throughout the exhibition, displayed like this, in just their network of capillaries; a rabbit, a duck, a horse’s head and a pig to name a few, but the most spectacular, in my opinion, is the capillary display of the ostrich with its wing feathers still intact. It’s fascinating to see just how densely inhabited by blood highways these animals are, and just how fine and fragile they seem. Some of these displays also contain internal organs, but even though every other component of the animal’s body – the skin, fat, muscle etc has been removed – it’s incredible to see how the contours of the capillary networks still densely form the distinct shape of that creature, even down to the duck’s entire bill.
I was amazed to find out that the capillary displays only demonstrate the animal’s main arteries. If they showed the entire network, you wouldn’t be able to see inside the specimen as there is nowhere in the body that is more than 0.2mm away from a capillary. After all, each and every cell in our body needs oxygen and nutrients to stay healthy, and how do they get them? Through our capillaries, of course. No wonder it’s so dense.
Around the whole exhibition there are occasional annotated pictures, showing cross-sections through a number of different animals or a specific body part, including a crocodile, a horse’s hoof, a needlefish and a hind leg of an elephant. In addition to these, your walk through the exhibition becomes loosely themed on the different body systems; the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, muscular, reproductive and digestive. Plastinated animals and their organs help to show each system independently from, or cohabiting with, the other systems. There’s a cat’s nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord and nerves, laid out freakishly like a Sentinel from the Matrix; a muscular statue of a foal, adjacent to its separately displayed digestive system (sadly not annotated), from tongue right through to its rectum; and a giraffe whose outermost layer on one half of its body is just muscle, and the other half exposes the skeletal system.
The majority of the plastinated animals, held in animated poses, have accompanying plaques that either share some interesting facts about the species or help you identify parts of their muscular and skeletal systems. I do feel that there could be more explanations about what internal organs are on display, to make it more educational. Had I not studied anatomy, I may have left the exhibition wondering if I’d stepped into the Tate Modern by mistake, as descriptions of many of the animal’s body parts are left untold, and so appear more like art pieces. Perhaps the emphasis on comparative anatomy skills may play a role in that, as the purpose of the exhibition may not be to teach each system specifically, but instead teach skills in drawing comparisons. If that were so, I’d expect to see answers to questions like “Are there more muscles in the giraffe’s leg compared to the human’s, or are there the same number, but just bigger?”.
Walking around, I overheard others asking questions amongst one another about the technique of plastination. Even though I knew the exhibition was drawing to a close (I could see the exit), the process remained unexplained. Then in the final room, there, it is finally described. Also in this room is the pièce de résistance: the huge Asian elephant, in all its modulated, dissected glory. Check out its muscles and bones, peer through its ribcage and bask in the enormity of its internal organs. Truly astonishing.
So who does the exhibition cater for?
There were visitors of all ages there, from pram-dwellers to the elderly, but I can’t confirm if they were equally entertained or satisfied. The displays really are such an impressive collection that I feel most people would be interested in seeing them. Not only am I confident in saying that most people would be in awe of the animal’s themselves, most won’t help but appreciate the amount of work that has gone into creating them and the wonderment in trying to decipher just how all this was achieved.
Despite being hugely impressed visually, I personally didn’t feel like I learned that much from it, but that’s surely to be expected having studied anatomy in the past. Other similar permanent displays at NHM do explain anatomy in much more detail, however, they aren’t quite as awe-inspiring as the plastinated animals (as you can see below):
But which is most important? I believe that a larger capacity to educate has priority over the capacity to impress. But surely a mixture of the two isn’t too much to ask for.
So, if you’re interested in experiencing an alternative, more creative way to admire and enjoy the aesthetics of anatomy, then I would definitely recommend that you visit Animal Inside Out. If, however, you’re slightly squeamish or you expect to reach saturation point due to information overload, then maybe you won’t be as impressed by this exhibition.
You can’t help but observe the vast differences and similarities between the collection of animals and specimens on show, whether you’ve been influenced by the invitations on the plaques to do so, or not. By encouraging visitors to adopt the same methods used by comparative anatomists, to study the animals, it brings a whole new level of enjoyment and insight into discovering museum pieces. Without much, or any, prior knowledge about anatomy, however, you may leave the exhibition with quite a few questions about what exactly you’ve been looking at. But maybe that’s the intention. Maybe it’s just the right balance of information and fascination that will inspire people, in particular young children to want to learn more.
In fact, the NHM shop has some great
models that would help fire up anyone’s deeper interest in the subject (like those pictured), maybe even pursue a career in a related subject, with any hope.
If you do plan to go and see the exhibition and you want to take children along with you, you can download this booklet to give them some structured guidance for what they can learn from the experience.
Animal Inside Out is on exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London, UK, until 16th September 2012. Admission: Adult £9. Child and concessions £6. Family £27. School groups £3 per pupil. Free to Members, Patrons and children aged 3 and under.
Up-to-date details about where this exhibition is currently on display can be found here.