Predators The Natural History Museum
There was a time when the taxidermist's art was much coveted by museums. But although their works can still be found in even the most threadbare of natural history exhibits, taxidermists are being superseded by a new species of model-maker that has the technology to make you gasp. Welcome to the era of the animatronic designers. Instead of glassy-eyed specimens that stare right back, they produce creations that move, respond and, most importantly, cause heads to turn.
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. Further down the room, you'll be able to disturb the hairy monster in its "web" and recoil as it rears its five-metre-long body and shows off its fangs.
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 service 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.
An added dimension is the art installations supplied by Olly Williams and Suzi Winstanley in Olly and Suzi Untamed. Collaborating with photographer Greg Williams, Olly and Suzi spend time in deserts and jungles, at the Poles and on the oceans, painting, filming and photographing the animals they track. Before the works are ready for display the animals are persuaded to leave their mark - some of the works have bites and scratches on them - although us humans will never know if this is a critical mauling or a mark of appreciation. Olly and Suzi Untamed will be showing throughout the museum.
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.
Despite all these added attractions, Paul Bowers admits that the animatronics will be a big attraction. "It's nice to have a gallery where we manage to blend the big blockbuster animatronics with some real science and some really nice specimens to get that balance right. Too often, an exhibition can have some lovely specimens but they can be a bit boring and the kids don't come to see them."
And on a sunny day in mid-August, with the competing attractions at the local theme park or the blockbuster at the multiplex in town, it will be the promise of an eye-to-eye encounter with a great white shark that will tip the balance in favour of a trip to the museum.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org