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Under the skin

"Animals Inside Out" at the Natural History Museum.

New Statesman
Porbeagle Shark, Photo: 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.