Under the skin

"Animals Inside Out" at the Natural History Museum.

Just behind the gigantic cast of a Diplodocus, which dominates the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall, is a gruesome example of the latest innovation in preservation: plastination. A camel, stomach exposed and a tri-section of its head visible demonstrates the process developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagen.

Following in the footsteps of Body Worlds, Hagen’s hugely successful and contentious exhibition, Animals Inside Out sees his team apply the same technique to some of the world’s largest creatures capturing their anatomy in fine detail. The process of plastination involves extracting all the water and fatty tissue from the animal before replacing them with polymers in a vacuum. This revolutionary method of preservation was invented by Hagen in 1977. However, it wasn’t possible to preserve larger specimens until the early 1990s. The process prevents the decay of the body and provides a fascinating insight into the anatomical workings of each specimen.

The most striking example of this takes the form of a large porbeagle shark. Having had its skin removed and colored liquid resin injected into the main arterial network, this fear-inspring predator is reduced to an intricate network of blood vessels. Floating, seemingly weightlessly, the delicate system of interweaving capillaries seems almost impossible, the crimson resin creating a luminous effect that reinforces its unreal aspect.

Though Animals Inside Out is designed to be factual, it’s emphasis on the biological and physiological, it is difficult not be distracted by its dazzling and often stomach-turning visuals.

Once you get used to the grisly spectacle of skinned animals, their insides take on a perverse kind of beauty. Indeed, where plastination is at its most impressive is in its preservation of the internal organs. The hare’s brain appears like a tiny, purple jewel; the cat’s brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, which we are told “give it the capability to react swiftly and with extraordinary precision”, sprawl across their case like creeping vines. There is something spectacular even in the towering giraffe whose body is sliced into thin cross sections allowing us to see its many vertebrae. Likewise, the elephant, which, weighing in at four tonnes is the biggest single specimen displayed in the museum, is remarkable if only due to its vast scale.

Despite their beauty, there is something unsettling about being surrounded by real animal specimens rather than models. Undoubtedly less macabre than Body Worlds, Hagen does not hesitate to remind his visitors that these creatures were living things; a foal frollicks with its plastinated stomach, digestive tract and other internal organs suspended next to it, a bull rears displaying its complex layers of muscle. Perhaps this is why the curators seem at pain to remind us that, "none of the animals in the exhibition have been killed for the purposes of plastination" and that "the Museum has undertaken due diligence to ensure that all the specimens comply with best collections practice". Nonetheless, some may argue that there is something distasteful about standing his skinless sheep, its intestines, liver and stomach revealed, on a sheepskin rug.

Animals Inside Out is on display at the Natural History Museum until 16 September.

Porbeagle Shark, Photo: Natural History Museum
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage