Fleshing out the animal world

A new exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum features more than 100 ‘skinned’ animals – from a balancing giraffe to a blood-red shark.


“Ouah! Qu-est-ce que c’est que ca?!” A group of French high school students are gathered around the flayed cadaver of a camel, its muscles and sinews exposed, its elongated head dissected into three to reveal the workings of its skull. “C’est cool”, they all agree.

The camel, located in the foyer of the Natural History Museum in London, was just a taster of its latest exhibition Animal Inside Out, which opens on Friday. With more than 100 exhibits – including a giant 56-year-old elephant, a giraffe balanced on one hoof, a blood-red shark and a hairless gorilla – it is the most recent creation of 21st century Frankenstein, Gunther von Hagens.

Accused of amoral ghoulishness for his previous exhibition Body Worlds, which featured a flayed horseman with a split skull, and a preserved foetus, von Hagens has now tackled the animal world.

In front of a towering Asian elephant – skin removed to reveal vast sinewy muscles and tightly coiled innards – Dr Angelina Whalley, exhibition curator from the Institute for Plastination and von Hagens’ wife, explained that the purpose of the exhibition was not to shock, but inspire.

“The idea that an animal – or even a human – was stripped of its skin is horrifying in our mind, but once you enter the exhibition and see how intricately nature has shaped these species people will have a completely different view,” she said. “It offers a glimpse into a world that is otherwise locked away. It is really inspiring to discover a different world and it really sparks admiration and respect.”

With the preserved animals displayed as though suspended in time – a vast bull, muscles taut and poised to attack, a pair of reindeer captured in full flight – the exhibition feels as much a collection of artworks as an anatomical display.

Designed to bring the creatures to life and reveal their inner workings to the best advantage, pulling them into position was no mean feat, explained Whalley. “It takes weeks, if not months depending on the size and complexity of the dissection,” she said. “We have big cranes, needles, nails and chains and any kind of material you can think to keep them in place while the process goes ahead.”

The animals – like the humans displayed in Body Worlds – are preserved using a process called plastination, invented by von Hagens at Heidelberg University in 1977. Water and fatty tissues are extracted from the creatures’ cells before being replaced with polymers. The skin of the specimens are then eroded using enzymes, bacteria or acids to reveal the preserved sections beneath in all their dizzying complexity.

Whalley hopes that seeing the animals in this way will remind the viewer of nature’s fragility. Looking at a bright scarlet shark – its skin removed to expose a dense web of capillaries – she said: “It looks so beautiful, almost like a work of art, but it also shows how fragile the creature is. My hope is once people know more about these wonderful beings they gain more appreciation and are inspired to protect their environment.”

The Asian elephant – donated like most of the animals in the exhibition after dying in captivity – dominates the final room of the exhibition, dwarfing even the giraffe at its side. Using the plastination method the elephant’s bones, muscles and tendons have been pulled slightly apart to reveal its huge internal organs. With a body so heavy that it would collapse under its own weight, Van Hagens came up with the idea of creating an internal scaffolding for the creature – a series of blood red steel pipes designed to precisely represent its vascular system.

Looking up at it, Dr Ralf Britz, a researcher at the museum, did little to hide his excitement. “Without plastination you just couldn’t display a specimen like this. Imagine the giant liquid tank you would need to display it,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”

According to Richard Sabin, head of the invertebrate collection at the museum, the exhibition will be useful for students of anatomy and fascinating for the general public.

He hopes it could inspire the next generation of biologists. “It’s very exciting. You can’t see these types of specimens anywhere, in any museum collection,” he said. “It’s about making people think about animals in a different way, and inspiring children to think about a career in biology or zoology in later life.”

There are classic von Hagen jokes too. A skinless sheep, its belly cut open to reveal its intestines, liver and stomach, stands on a sheepskin rug. “Well, a little humour is allowed and also necessary,” Whalley said. “The best teacher is always a good entertainer too.”

Guardian & News Media

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