11:57 PM EDT, March 13, 2013
The last time the Body Worlds people displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry, in a 2011 exhibition showing the development and decline of the human corpus, they included, with seeming incongruity, an ostrich.
The flightless — and, in this case, skinless — bird wasn't just a hanger-on or a fluke amid all the artful preservation and exposure of human innards. Like a weird final scene in a blockbuster movie that had seemingly already ended, it was a taste of things to come, an attempt to set visitors up for the sequel.
Now, two years later, comes that sequel, with the ostrich (or at least an ostrich) returning from the original cast. And like, arguably, the second editions of “Toy Story” or “The Godfather,” it is that extreme rarity, the sequel that is better than its predecessor.
Beginning Thursday, the South Side science temple turns over both of its big main-floor temporary exhibit spaces to “Animal Inside Out,” the U.S. premiere of a collection of more than 100 wild kingdom specimens that have undergone the trademark plastination process pioneered by the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens (and given its widest showing in the 2006 James Bond movie “Casino Royale”).
The previous three Body Worlds shows here have focused on the human form. “Animal Inside Out” exposes our intellectual inferiors, from cephalopods to fellow vertebrates, and the show benefits greatly from the variety of life forms on display.
An eye-popping spectacle from start to finish, “Animal Inside Out” is a sort of alternate-universe zoo, one that lets you get surprisingly close to the often unencased critters. As guests wander between them, reindeer, sharks and a sheep, to name three, mill about, shamelessly showing visitors what they're really like. You know, on the inside.
The dominant color is red, because that's what blood does to tissue, and because one von Hagens process allows the display of a creature's entire network of blood vessels, a body defined in capillaries.
On the rabbit exhibited thusly, it's like a road map drawn by Escher or a particularly confounding tangle of used butcher's string. Also shown off in this manner are a horse's head (for “Godfather” enthusiasts, perhaps), a baby pig, a dog, a duck.
Another horse's head is shown sliced in three, crossways, from ear down to snout. This presentation is more familiar from, and more expected in, the showing off of old trees, but applied to the equine noggin, the drama is undeniable.
Given recent culinary news out of Europe, we might be a little more comfortable if the rest of the horses were presented, too, potentially chewy bits intact. But we'll take Body Worlds' word for it that this is all done according to modern ethics. The wall sign addressing the issue right up front says that “no animals were harmed or killed for this exhibition,” and “veterinary programs, zoos and animal groups” provided the animal bodies.
The few human parts on display, it continues, came from informed, consenting donors, something Body Worlds has pointed out carefully and aggressively after controversy about the source of its bodies dogged it early on.
Meanwhile, two of the grandest “Animal Inside Out” specimens the Museum of Science and Industry is hoping to display — a lowland gorilla and an elephant — are awaiting U.S. clearance to enter the country because of their endangered species status, according to museum officials. The gorilla is represented in a video, as Body Worlds works to get the specimens in.
It may be disappointing to know that attendees of the show in London last year, at the Natural History Museum, did get to see the gorilla and the Asian elephant, the latter billed as “the largest specimen to ever be plastinated.” But the contract between Body Worlds and the museum to bring “Animal Inside Out” was signed only in mid-December, according to both parties.
Nonetheless, what is in Chicago now is mightily impressive, with giraffes, a camel and a bull winning the bulk competition, and the rest of the menagerie proving that size isn't the only thing that matters.
The specimens — “statuary” seems, at times, the more accurate term — with circulatory system highlighted are spectacular, but they are less rewarding than the ones that do show off the meat or the entrails, or both.
You can peer into a Bactrian camel, a little fur left on top and a lot of bile left in the exposed stomach. An adult giraffe, posed at the entrance to the second gallery, is skeleton on its right half, fleshed-out skeleton on its left.
Looking at the bull, a beast treated with the plasticizing process seemingly in midsnort and just before the final buck that sent the cowboy flying, you see raw power in the athletic pose and haunches that make an Olympic sprinter's look modest. You also see meat on the hoof, your mind imagining the dotted lines delineating chuck from brisket.
And, yes, visitors could find a way to get creeped out by all of this flesh, a stark contrast from the last occupant in one of the galleries, the two-dimensional childhood drama of Charles Schulz's “Peanuts.”
Allow yourself to think it's nauseating and you might skip lunch altogether or, at minimum, forgo the turkey-and-bacon BLT down in one of the museum's restaurants.
But steel yourself to it, buck up to the bloody facts of life, even decide to revel in them a bit, and your dominant reaction is much more likely to be fascination, a fascination of the similarities between mammals: The streamlined simplicity of a giant squid's interior cavity compared with the seemingly jerry-rigged complexity of a camel's. The cross-section (looking downward) of an elephant, back-lit on a wall, like an abstract work on loan from the Art Institute. (An elephant slice, apparently, can cross the U.S. border with impunity.)
We can think we've become blase about the Body Worlds shtick. Attendance figures for the 2011 show, just over 250,000, did not reach blockbuster levels of its two predecessors at the museum, which, combined, drew some 1.3 million people in 2005 and 2007. But seeing it in person, once again, the vocabulary simplifies. Plastination is just an amazing method of display.
It's presented without apology and with a frankness that could be called clinical, if there weren't also touches of whimsy throughout.
The one full human on display is devoid of skin, yet he holds a giant cellphone to his ear, a tableau that might be called “1997 Man.”
Two ostriches, each stripped down in different ways, are nonetheless dandified to display three feather bouquets at wingtips and tail.
And the visual impact of seeing parts of animals presented in cross-section — the wonder of how it is done and the way it looks when it has been done — seems far greater than the scientific value.
The organizing principle of “Animal Inside Out” is a kind of loose course on comparative anatomy, highlighting, in various areas, the skeleton, the nervous system, the musculature, etc.
You do learn things: Despite vastly different lifespans, elephants and shrews and other animals, for instance, get roughly 1 billion heartbeats in their lives, while humans, clever as we are, manage to eke out triple that. Horses cannot vomit. Cows are descended from aurochs, “a wild species that is now extinct.”
And you question other things. A sign before a flayed goat asserting that goats were the first domesticated animals sends you, soon enough, scurrying to the Internet where you find, as you thought, that the dog seems to have been tamed first.
There is just enough science here, though, to keep you from feeling a full-on voyeur. The news, in a wall placard and a video, that Body Worlds is working with endangered species helps too. But Body Worlds, fundamentally, is about showmanship, and looking into my own mass of carefully evolved tissue, I find both brain and heart agreeing that that is not a problem at all.
'Animal Inside Out'
When: Through Sept. 2
Where: Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, 57th St. and Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Timed-entry tickets are $18-$27 (Chicagoans) and $19-$30 (non-residents) including general admission; 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org
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