Exhibition: predators

Yolanda Brooks

The Natural History Museum

Almost three decades after Steven Spielberg scared cinema audiences out of their wits with a rubber shark in Jaws, the Natural History Museum in London has a five-metre great white of its own. Instead of cartilage, muscle and scales (or even rubber), this beast has an aluminium and steel core and a latex covering and runs on compressed air - less deadly than the real thing, but certainly more impressive than the Spielberg version.

The shark is the centrepiece of the new Predators exhibition, which opens at the museum next Wednesday. Twitching and swaying alongside it are a Jackson chameleon and a Sydney funnel-web spider. In real life, the Jackson chameleon has a sticky tongue almost twice as long as its body; a distinctive hunting weapon that shoots out to catch its prey. At the exhibition, visitors will be able to take control of the tongue themselves from the safe distance of a console.

The Natural History Museum already has an impressive animated T.rex in its dinosaur exhibition, undoubtedly the biggest draw in the show. But the researcher and writer for the Predators exhibition, Paul Bowers, insists the robotics are not there as a crowd-pleaser. "When we create exhibitions we are not just doing them to try and wow people, and we don't have this obsession that visitor figures have to rise and rise. Rather than think 'we must have a huge exhibition with animatronics, what subject can we do?' We look at how best to cover a subject."

Predators isn't just about bringing big, scary animals to life. Specimens from lion and weasel skulls to bird beaks, from Harris hawks to sea urchins, have been brought into servicenbsp; to help explain the predator-prey relationship. Mr Bowers says: "Because we've got 70 million-odd specimens, we try to use them where possible as part of our remit is to educate and inform."

Predators incorporates three areas. In The Senses, visitors can find out what skills allow animals to seek out their prey and how prey respond to protect themselves. Tools and Weapons looks at the physical adaptations that make predators successful and allow prey their lucky escapes. But it's the section on hunting strategy that will probably appeal most to the target age group of seven to 12-year-olds. All that flesh-ripping and chasing and talk of gruesome deaths cannot fail to impress.

Museum scientists will also be dropping into the exhibition. There is a planned programme of informal workshops and talks for schools and families, and related activities will be running in the museum's wildlife garden and theatre. From September until the end of the exhibition, Olly and Suzi and various survivalists, scientists and animal experts will be giving a series of wildlife-themed talks in the evenings.

Predators is part of the Year of the Predator running at the Natural History Museum from July 18, 2001- May 6, 2002. Tel: 020 7942 5000. Admission: adults pound;9; children up to 16 and over-60s free; concessions pound;4.50. The evening talks cost pound;4 (pound;3 with concessions). Open Mon-Sat 10am-5.50pm, Sun 11am-5.50pm. Web: www.nhm.ac.uk. For disabled travel info and advice line call Tripscope on 08457 585 641. Email: tripscope@cablenet.co.uk

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Yolanda Brooks

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