Review (of sorts): Sexual Nature at the Natural History Museum
By Mark Carnall, on 14 February 2011
Happy Valentine’s Day. Last week, Jack Ashby the Learning and Access Manager at the Grant Museum and I were invited along to one of the private views of the Natural History Museum’s latest temporary exhibitions, Sexual Nature. Private views are a funny thing in museums – they may be a practice borrowed from commercial art galleries or perhaps a practice carried over from classier times when everyone who worked in a museum had to wear top hats. Generally though they are a good event to get together with colleagues, drink some wine, eat some canapés if you are lucky, and very occasionally actually go and see the exhibition that is being launched. Here’s what we thought of Sexual Nature:
FULL DISCLOSURE: We are pleased to continually work with colleagues from almost every part of the Natural History Museum, either sharing skills and skulls informally, or more formally through big public events and programmes. It is no lie that walking through the main hall for an early meeting before they open is a genuine thrill. There are only four museums with natural history collections in London and we stick together. Many of the curators at the museum are doing astonishing work, truly on the cutting edge of museum practice. However, that being said there is occasionally some resentment from small museums when large institutions get the lion’s share of attention.
It’s akin to how a music geek who plays in a garage band might accuse the latest chart topping band of ‘selling out’ regardless of whether they like the music or not. Frustratingly the museum is a true house of wonder behind the scenes, however, this same sense of wonder doesn’t always translate to the public galleries.
What the Natural History Museum does often sets a precedence for what everyone else will be expected to do. Sometimes it will be excellent things like the Dino Birds exhibition, other times it isn’t such excellent things (the marketing for the diamonds exhibition springs to mind). So it isn’t like we go along to these things with a view to critically rip it to shreds but as the national flag bearer for natural history we go along with a critical eye.
M: The exhibition is specimen-licious. Which is nice.
J: Considering how many millions of specimens they look after on behalf of the nation, it’s nice to see some of them feature in a temporary exhibition. Not sure why they had to use a plastic model of a chimp skull though.
M: I think the Antarctica exhibition had four specimens in total. The Deep had some nice models. On loan. From Germany.
J: There is a lot of text.
M: Thanks to twitter, these days I am practically blind to anything over 140 characters long. There is a lot of text. Like a book. I hope they are selling Dr Tatiana’s sex advice for all creation in the shop. Not the DVD though that was awful.
J: They went a bit crazy with trying to sauce up the labels and be a bit naughty. Mostly, people want puns that mean something rather than just being there for the sake of it.
M: I don’t mind the puns but some of the colloquialisms are cringe-worthy. The language switches between the stuff that teenage boys would say to each other on the bus and what a grandmother might say in lieu of actually having to say the ‘s’ word. Also, this may sound crass but I was disappointed at how few genitalia were on display. A trick has been missed with the whale and hyaena specimens.
J: Well, at the museums that have tackled this topic in the past, actual physical exhibits displaying sex is what work best – I remember the best animal sex exhibition I’ve seen is Against Nature at the Oslo University Museum of Natural History, which had full-sized models of dolphins “blow-holing” and photos of primates “diddling” and orcas “finning”. But Sexual Nature’s mating hedgehogs and rabbits were nice.
M: The whole museum, in fact every natural history museum, is basically a celebration of sex. Hopefully this exhibition won’t just exist as a temporary exhibition but the content will magically seep out into the permanent galleries. I don’t think the “fact” about chubby chasers is needed though.
J: And of course, while it’s great that the NHM is now tackling something that has massive public interest, it was done at the Grant Museum years ago, with the Naughty Nature lecture series, and the annual Animal Magnetism Valentine’s event.
M: I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting 1950s ‘risqué’ titillation but they’ve tackled some tricky subjects here like homosexuality and forced sex.
J: All NHM-bashing aside, it was the best exhibition they’ve done since Dino Birds, well worth a visit, and at the heart of it a bit of fun. I would recommend it.
M: Oh look, they are selling Dr Tatiana in the gift shop.