Sexual Nature

Review

of an Exhibition

by Andrea Bandelli

Published on February 17, 2011, Modified on July 04, 2012

  • Description:

    When it comes to exhibitions, sex is a big taboo for science museums. Sometimes they dare to dedicate a small set of exhibits or displays to the topic, usually looking only at the reproductive function of sex without including also the emotional and social aspects.
    But this taboo is slowly fading away, and in recent years there have been some good exhibitions on the topic, looking at sexuality from different perspectives.

    Before covering the latest exhibition of Natural History Museum in London on the subject, called “Sexual Nature”, here is my list of outstanding exhibitions on the topic (after all, “sex” is probably the most searched item on the internet but on Exhibit Files it gives only 2 results, so it’s good to add something):

    NEMO in Amsterdam opened a few years ago “Teen Facts”, an exhibition on puberty and adolescence which includes a really well done section on sexuality covering all aspects relevant to teenagers, from homosexuality to birth control, from the role of emotions to the “first time”.

    • In Paris, la Cité de Science developed 2 years ago a travelling exhibition called “Sex – Wot’s the big deal?”, a candid and beautifully designed exhibition on love and sex for children and youngsters aged 6 to 15.

    • A few years back the Natural History Museum in Oslo developed “Against Nature”, the first (and quite likely only) full exhibition on homosexuality among animals. It is an excellent example of how an exhibition not only challenges the diffused stereotype that homosexuality is “against nature”, but also how it exposes the uneasiness with which scientists themselves have dealt with the subject until recently.

    • Finally, the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden has a large permanent section called “Sexuality: Love, sex and lifestyles in the age of reproductive medicine” which takes a holistic approach to sexuality confronting the visitor with the role of sex in our society.

    I am now really happy to add “Sexual Nature” to this list as the newest and most delightful exhibition on the topic of sexuality.
    The Natural History Museum in London (like many other museums of its kind) is still associated with dinosaurs and hordes of children roaming through the galleries. In order to change, or at least challenge this stereotype, the NHM has developed its first exhibition “for adults only” (the exhibition is in fact open to anybody, of course), covering themes that are relevant to an adult public and which are addressed in a frank, mature and open way. And humorous too.

    “Sexual Nature” looks at science behind sex in the natural world. It shows what we know and what we see happening among living creatures when it comes to reproduction, sex, and the associated behaviours.
    The exhibition design is very sexy indeed, with suffused light and lounge music in the background. Large posters with catchy titles such as “Shape matters”, “Ménage à ?” and “You sexy beast” gently define the spaces for the main themes and subthemes of the exhibition. All around the outer walls hang large black and white photographs of animals “caught in the act”; they create an intriguing but also very elegant and welcoming setting for the visitor.
    As we arrive in the first area of the exhibition, all the main “languages” of the exhibition are immediately visible, that is the methods used throughout it: large projection screens with exceptional documentaries; specimens from the collections of the museum; and informative and often amusing texts, including the “facts of life” – short bits about the surprising habits of the living world around us.
    A bit further up in the exhibition we see also live fish and insects in glass aquaria, where we can observe their behaviour “live”. Considering that the Florida stick insect (one of the species on display) engages in a sexual act that lasts 5 months, there’s a high chance you may see it “while doing it”.
    For this exhibition three new taxidermy have been commissioned, to display the mating techniques of foxes, rabbits and hedgehogs. Many other specimen on display from the collections of the museum perfectly complement the information provided in the exhibition.

    I won’t go into the description of the narrative of the exhibition, and all the themes that it presents. It’s an experience that involves multiple senses (be prepared for instance to be discover that the mating scents of wild stag and jaguar can be just as effective as the perfumes we use) and is delightful to see it developing as you walk through the exhibition.

    Just as you start walking though, you cannot avoid overhearing an intriguing voice that periodically says in excitement things like “They all want to mate me with their corkscrew penises… Ouch! Forced copulation”. Yep, there’s porno too in the exhibition. “Green Porno”, to be precise: an incredible series of short videos where Isabella Rossellini re-enacts the sexual habits of several insects and animals. These videos perfectly integrate in the exhibition and provide a humorous and at the same time very informative view on sexuality, seduction and habits in nature (the videos can be seen here).

    The narrative of the exhibition draws you further and further, to uncover and be surprised by the variety of the meanings of “sexuality” among the living world. When I visited, the more I walked through the exhibition the more I appreciated how the exhibition is strictly scientific, it shows what we know about sexuality in nature, and there is no reference or comparison to human sexuality. Which is exactly what we expect from a museum of natural history. But I confess it made me really curious about how we stand, with our sexuality, in comparison to all the other species from which we evolved.
    The last section of the exhibition is the space where we can reflect on what we just learned and experienced. The lights are brighter, the colour red dominates, and the music is not anymore the sexual lounge music but it turns into pop hits on love and sex.
    You can reflect about what you find sensual and seductive; pictures and specimen are on display, as well as actual recordings and descriptions of dating site announcements. You can also vote on questions raised by the exhibition such as “should humans be monogamous?” or “what is sex for? Procreation, recreation or intimacy?” and find out that what you just saw makes you take longer to push the button and make your choice.
    At the very end there is a large wall to leave a trace of your visit. You can play with sensual words on a giant “fridge magnetic poetry” wall and create your own lines; and you can write your sensual thoughts on a card and leave it on the wall next to several others. It was funny and interesting to see that some of the cards referenced one another, creating amusing little dialogues.

    After I left the exhibition I found myself again surrounded by the large crowds of families going to see the dinosaurs; I smiled, I looked back to the exhibition and for a moment I though, “if the whole museum were like that…!”

    [Note: I took the pictures with an iPhone, and the quality is not excellent; the Telegraph has a beautiful online photo gallery of the exhibition which offers a good preview, and the Guardian has an audio-video slide show which also gives you a great preview.]

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