The thing about plastination, a technique created by Gunther von Hagens that in essence freezes the deceased into plastic, is that it just doesn’t look real. When visiting Animals Inside Out at the Centre for Life you do need to keep reminding yourself that these are not just exact models of animals, anatomically correct in every detail, they are so accurate and detailed because they were once alive.
It’s somehow much easier to go and see von Hagen’s animals than his renowned BodyWorlds. While you wander around you do question ‘where did he get all of these animals from?’. Yes, I already know they are donated and it clearly indicates on entering that they are ethically sourced, but at the same time, humans donating their bodies seems a more likely event that someone giving up, say and elephant. I’m grateful there are people out there that have elephants to give, because the results were fascinating.
There are not many places where you can stand alongside a bear, a gorilla, an elephant or giraffe. I can’t think of any other exhibition where you can stand next to any of these and see what it looks like under their skin. Many of these larger examples are not behind glass, just an ankle high rope, so you really get the scale of these creatures. Even in death they are huge and were clearly powerful in life. Like with Hagens’s plastinated humans, the ears, nose, eyes and often eyebrows of the animals are left untouched when the skin around in removed. I presume this is a method of making them look more like the animal that they were in life, it definitely results in making these deceased creatures more individual and helps to remind you that they are real. The large projected backgrounds or National Geographic footage acts as a reminder of the surroundings that these animals came from.
The exhibition does a very good job of showing comparisons between the animal kingdom, from brain size, to lungs and its educational focus means that the vast majority of examples have diagrams pointing out specific body parts and adaptations. There are always more questions though, such as ‘is this skeleton male or female?’, sadly I’ll never know the answer . . . maybe I just arrive too late to accost an enthusiastic gallery interpreter. Although a vast amount of information can be absorbed, even by those who ignore the interpretation; who knew cat brains were so small and bulls hearts so large!
Working your way through the exhibition, the last room is the most spectacular. Featuring two giraffes, an elephant and two cows, the scale of these animals is incredible and the room itself impressive.
The style of interpretation is interesting. The language is simple, but it is the layout that is unusual. It is presented like a poem rather than a block of text, each line having a different point. Once you get used to this, information can be picked out quickly, but it does in the first few reads feel jolty and without a natural flow, like you are reading out a poem that doesn’t rhyme or have any rhythm. Look out of some of the photos used alongside the text. The one which I’m sure should have been labelled ‘dog having a poo’ seems a rather random choice, at least ‘cow having a wee’ seem to feature alongside a related interpretation panel.
Animals Inside Out is on at the Centre for Life Newcastle from the 28 May 2016 until 3 January 2017.