'Animal Inside Out' is Body Worlds' take on beasts and birds

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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.

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'Animal Inside Out'
Through Sept. 2
Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, 57th St. and Lake Shore Drive
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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