‘Sex.’ The red neon sign was promising. Sultry lighting, soft drapery, a thrumming soundtrack. Around the corner, that scarlet pledge was fulfilled in spades.
The big-screen film with which visitors are welcomed into the Natural History Museum’s new Sexual Nature exhibition is what my literature tutor would have termed ‘a programmatic statement of intent’. Pornography in the common-mould it was not. No cries of “Yes! Fuck me!” here, and certainly no shortage of body hair.
I imagine the copulation may have held unfortunate resonance for some visitors: swift and perfunctory, he thrust frantically, a grim desperation writ large across his face; she looked bored, vaguely irritated, and continued to munch on a piece of bamboo. The flanking sign claimed that Bonobos (‘chimps’ to you and me) are man’s nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. Perhaps the curator’s intention was to ease his audience into ‘the diversity of methods exploited in seduction and reproduction’ which the exhibition promises.
Using specimens from the Museum’s vast collections, Sexual Nature incorporates much of what is great about the South Kensington favourite. A huge variety of creatures, great and small, bewitching and repulsive, exotic and everyday, populate the exhibits. The language is detachedly scientific, yet the words radiate with the power of understatement, as your mind makes the connections that are so loudly latent. Of the Stalk-eyed Fly, Cyrtodiopsis dalmanni: ‘The far-sighted flies eyeball rivals from long distances, comparing lengths of their eyestalks. The longer the stalks, the more dominant the male’; of male anglerfish, Linophryne arborifera: ‘Males have no other purpose in life than to donate sperm. They are little more than living testes.’ You soon have a permanent giggle lodged in your gullet, unsure whether to force its way out or keep respectful silence. Like schoolchildren you cluster round a board informing you that ‘The sensual demands of cats are so acute that males are endowed with barbed penises adding an extra thrill to proceedings’. Fellow visitors catch each other’s eyes, all clearly attempting to fix their faces with a look of thoughtful contemplation, as if they were being collectively educated on the finer points of macro-economics rather than the genital configuration of pleasure-seeking felines.
Dotted throughout are screens showing Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno films. ER reviewed the series in Issue 99, and rightly concluded that they were all kinds of bizarre and brilliant. Each piece sees Rossellini dressed as the featured animal (worms, bees, anglerfish, blue whales and more), and doing it like they do on the discovery channel, but so, so much better. Apparently male ducks are rather aggressive when it comes to doing the dirty. In response, their female counterparts have evolved vaginas that are quite literally labyrinthine – only with guidance can the drake successfully gain access to the coveted eggs. I’m sure that countless men have imagined this sultry Italian crooning “A little to the right, a little to the left”. I’m guessing that in fewer of those imaginings would Isabella be dressed as a common-or-garden water fowl, shifting her tail (replete with feathers) in a remarkably accurate imitation of a duck, and announcing in a sighingly mellifluous Mediterranean lilt “You will father my babies”.
Sexual Nature has substance and is hugely enjoyable – just right for getting your Saturday off to a good start. My one qualm was with the last stage of proceedings, which dealt with human sexuality. After a no-holds-barred frolic through the scandalous reproductive lives of the birds, the bees, and everything in between, the end of the exhibition was infused with a sentimentality that clouded the question of humans considered as sexual beings. Visitors were asked to vote ‘Yes’ ‘No’ ‘Maybe’ to the question ‘Do you believe in true love?’ For an exhibition which exhorted you first and foremost to lay aside any preconceptions, the ending struck the wrong tone. Unfortunate, but not enough to undo all the good work done before. You’ve got until October, so go.
Sexual Nature at the Natural History Museum. 11th February-2nd October 2011. 10:00-17:30. £3.50-£18.00. www.nhm.ac.uk