May 31st, 2011
Want to know what testicle size has to do with your relationship status? Whether a long tail may help or hinder you get a mate? Or what scents you might secrete to attract a partner? If so, head to London’s Natural History Museum where you’ll find a sexual surprise between now and October 2011. ‘Sexual Nature’ is an exhibition that focuses on attraction, reproduction and sexual behaviour in non-human animals.
In a climate where all too often our understanding of the ‘evolution’ and ‘biology’ of sex come in a package of bad science or gender stereotypes, it’s interesting to see an exhibition purely focusing on what different species do – rather than how they compare with humans. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on how animals are similar and different to each other – often challenging many beliefs you might have about monogamy, sexuality and reproduction.
Through the exhibition you’ll learn more about how the senses – sight, sound and smell particularly play a role in attracting a mate. Indicating how these factors may differ between species, while what you think might be desirable for a particular creature may not turn out to be advantageous when you factor in the risk of predators.
A wide range of animal activity is shown (although of course there has to be an appearance from dolphins and bonobos). Lesser known ‘sexy’ species are also included, with the chance to see the positions animals favour for mating, plus the chance to listen in to mating calls and smell desire.
There is a focus on homosexuality, monogamy and non monogamies, and different genders which is another pleasant surprise in an area which often tends to reinforce rigid gender/sexuality/relationship stereotypes. That said I think the exhibition would benefit from reviews from gender/sexuality experts who could unpack the core messages still further. Part of me suspects although a more diverse view on gender/sex/relationships is taken, it is still presented through a heteronormative lens.
A major treat is the screening of clips from Isabella Rossellini’s ‘Green Porno’ focusing on the diverse mating habits of fish, insects and other creatures). (Some clips from her work can be viewed here).
Along with the exhibition the Natural History Museum are hosting a series of debates, discussions and talks, rethinking how we view sexual behaviour, attraction, desire and sexuality. You can keep up to date with these here and don’t forget you can see the exhibition on a Friday night late night viewing (last Friday of every month).
You may want to know where humans fit into an exhibition on non-human animal sex, and those into narrative and discourse may be particularly excited to learn the close of the exhibition does include the human – focusing on how language shapes and creates sex, gender and relationships. I wasn’t expecting this aspect to the exhibition but found it a really fitting way to think about how humans ‘do’ sex.
Of course as with any exhibition there’s an obligatory exit through the gift store where I was pleased to see a range of STIs on sale – obviously in plush toy form (you can also view and purchase these here). I was disappointed the range of texts promoted alongside the exhibition were not really what I’d like showcased as explaining human or animal sexual behaviour. The works of Desmond Morris or sex tips from actress Kim Cattrall aren’t really cutting edge sexology. Worryingly some of the texts showcased represent to me some of the worst examples of bad sexual science. If you’re hosting a cutting edge exhibition on animal sex you’d really expect similarly high quality books available to buy. Not least because this area is riddled with dire sexpertise and the problem of poorly researched/misleading sex advice books has been well documented. Perhaps in the remaining months the exhibition is open the museum may change their stock – I’d certainly be happy to recommend them some suitable titles.
I’d definitely recommend a visit to this exhibition (although wish the entry price could be a little cheaper!). It could be an ideal outing for schools as part of tackling science/sex and relationships education (it is open to 16s and over, more information including teacher notes here). You might enjoy a visit with friends or perhaps as a date? Parents may wish to read about the exhibition before deciding whether to take children (more information here). Younger children may only understand the exhibition in terms of seeing different animals, while older children may experience a range of reactions (positive and negative). Knowing how comfortable your child is thinking about mating/attraction and how much awareness of sex/relationships/sexuality should determine whether you take them along. The fact your child may be learning about sex/relationships/sexuality issues with other people present may feel off putting to some so it’s important to consider your child’s comfort levels before and during a visit should you decide to go. This exhibition could be a useful addition to other sex/relationships education you’ve been sharing with your child but definitely is not a replacement! Elsewhere in the museum human reproduction and development is covered in more depth so you may wish to begin with this before viewing Sexual Nature.
More information, sneak previews and ticket sales available here.Tweet