First of the big summer exhibitions

You don’t expect sea creatures at this exhibition but there were a few—and big ones at that.

I confess that until this past April, I hadn’t seen any of Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ blockbuster BODY WORLDS exhibitions. It wasn’t squeamishness that held me back (he says just a wee bit defensively), I was just never in the right city at the right time. BODY WORLDS’ animal‑based exhibition, Animal Inside Out, had its Canadian debut at the Canadian Museum of Nature this spring and I was able to attend the opening event with our Director Ken Ross.

I like openings. The speeches are cheerful, the nibblies are a welcome five o’clock bonus and you are generally likely to run into somebody you know from the museum community. The Canadian Museum of Nature’s CEO Meg Beckel introduced the exhibition in a casual and pleasant manner and Dr. Kamal Khidas, Vertebrates Curator, also commented on the value of Dr. von Hagens’ work. The Director of the Institute for Plastination, Dr. Angelina Whalley, also welcomed us via a pre‑recorded video. 

There were some human examples there for comparison purposes. Note the human vs. horse brain size.

The nibblies proved a bit of a challenge. Ken and I seemed unable to strategically place ourselves within the orbit of a waiter with a full tray. Some people are gifted with that ability—standing like bears swiping salmon out of a waterfall—but not us. No matter, maybe one shouldn’t approach such an exhibition having just filled up on prosciutto and a half-dozen sweet and sour meat balls.

Some animals are going to be all about the muscles.

A few of the smallest specimens were the most beautiful.

A giraffe requires a heart the size of a football to pump blood up its eight-foot neck.

As it turned out, everything was just fine in that regard. Preserved dead stuff holds no particular horror for me and all the better if none of it looks like anybody I know or anything I plan to eat. In fact, any hint of revulsion was immediately displaced by astonishment. To see the inner workings of an animal exposed in such clarity is an experience one should seek out. Although exhibitions like this run the risk of having an exploitative, carnival side‑show aspect to them, the exhibition designers looked for anatomy lessons to make the frankly amazing results of the “plastination” process work in an educative context. It is a process that was designed for use primarily in medical schools, after all. Most of the featured animals had different aspects of their bodies exposed so the exhibit didn’t resemble the simple muscle and bone lesson one might imagine. Fish swim-bladders, sheep brains, caribou kidneys and astoundingly crowded networks of blood vessels are examples of the variety of features highlighted amongst the over 100 animals. Many of the animals looked much as you would expect them to at a BODY WORLDS exhibition, the notable stand-outs being the blood vessel displays and the full body slices. There are a number of animals displayed in this last manner. Back-lit like x-ray negatives, they were quite beautiful, especially the fish samples. Resembling giant microscope slides, dozens of horizontal slices of a giraffe were arranged like an airport mobile alongside a (relatively) more normal-looking giraffe. The full giraffe took technicians three years to prepare and as you can imagine, they paid special attention to the neck.

Definitely the star of the show.

But can you take the kids? Yes you can. Mind you, this is a science exhibition, so there is no modesty regarding any features of the animals (including some especially personal components of a caribou). But neither are the examples nightmarish or disgusting—just very surreal. So enjoy a pre‑show salami-on-rye and bring the kids. 

On at the Canadian Museum of Nature until 20 September.