Infinitely scandalous: the Natural History Museum’s Sexual Nature

Infinitely scandalous: the Natural History Museum’s Sexual Nature

If you want something to create a buzz, you can’t do much better than getting your product banned. The Natural History Museum‘s PR machine must have thanked its lucky stars, then, when Transport for London banned an advertising poster for their new Sexual Nature exhibition. Not only did the action raise awareness for the Museum, it was also exactly on message. What better way to promote an exhibition containing “frank information and imagery about sex” than getting your marketing poster banned “because it contained silhouettes of animal penises”?

The first thing you see in Sexual Nature is this giant glowing 'Sex' sign

Cynic that I am, I arrived at the exhibition this week expecting it not to live up to the buzz. Surely the Natural History Museum wouldn’t really be getting down and dirty? Well, they’re not – really. But Sexual Nature is still a great little exhibition – written in a charming style and packed full of weird and wonderful animal facts. It also features a bizarre and compelling set of films casting actress Isabella Rossellini in a serious of compromising positions.

Written in charming style

I couldn’t identify the writer for Sexual Nature from the credits but, whoever they are, they’ve done a great job. Accessible, beautifully crafted and lightly cheeky (without being titillating), the succinct panels and captions are a pleasure to read. I don’t usually engage with museum captions (an irony since I’ve just spent two months writing a batch of them…) but I wanted to digest every word. A couple of my favourite phrases:

“From buxom blossoms and flamboyant feathers to six-inch stilettos, awesome antlers and florid phalluses…”

“Male manakins have the whole package: good looks, impressive dance moves and the ability to carry a tune.”

Even the mandatory 'tell us what you think' sign stays on message

Weird and wonderful animal facts

I challenge even the most geeky wildlife follower not to find a host of new – and stunning – animal facts here. Sure, there’s the standard  male-seahorses-incubate-and-give-birth-to-their-young line and the rather old news of Central Park Zoo’s ‘gay penguins’. But there’s also the male fornicating slipper limpet, who does his business, stays attached to his partner and then turns himself female, ready to mate with the next male – who then repeats the cycle. The result is a spiralling stack of transgender females, poised to ‘turn’ their next male suitor. Or there’s the spinner dolphins who hold group sex sessions called “wuzzles”. And what about the unimpressed female duck who, if forced to have sex with a mangey mallard, can send his sperm on an internal ‘dead end’ diversion, steering them away from their ultimate goal.

Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno

I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but the most striking piece of interpretation in the exhibit is the sight of Isabella Rosellini clad in tight fitting lycra acting out the male role in a range of animal mating scenarios. Yes, the stunningly beautiful daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Italian film director Roberto Rossellini is indulging in what she calls ‘Green Porno’. In each of the short films Rossellini imagines herself as a particular animal, and “makes love as that animal would”. Despite the Fingerbobs appearance, each film is scientifically accurate – with Rossellini delighting in  the fact that nature is so “infintely scandalous”

Isabella 'Spiderman' Rossellini in Green Porno

In the accompanying Green Porno book, Rossellini says she hopes the project prompts two reactions: that people will laugh and say “Oh, I didn’t know that about animals” and that people will fall in love with the animal kingdom and protect it. I certainly fell in love with the films – so much so, I ended up buying the book and DVD in the obligatory exhibition shop.

Even if Isabella in lycra isn’t your thing, Sexual Nature is a good solid exhibition. Alongside the text, pickled specimens and stuffed exhibits, there is a smattering of alternative experiences. An old-school audio handset plays animal mating calls. A set of smell dispensers shares pungent sexy secretions. And there’s the standard chance for visitors to reflect on what they have seen, by voting on a topical issue (and seeing how others have voted) and by reflecting on and sharing their own experiences.

Overall, the approach is also pleasingly inclusive – in the final exhibit, where visitors use an old-fashioned telephone to dial into lonely hearts ads, they have the option to select their own gender, plus the gender of their potential partner. The myriad sexual habits, positions and tricks of the animal world may be infinitely scandalous, the way they’ve been presented isn’t – but that makes the exhibition all the better.


Sexual Nature is at the Natural History Museum, London until 2 October 2011.


Tony Short
March 1, 2011 7:05 pm

I loved your write-up, Anna. But I’m now left wondering if this exhibition would be suitable for my son, who had his 13th birthday two weeks ago!
But I notice they sell “family Tickets” for £21, so I guess they must think it’s suitable for the kids.


March 2, 2011 12:39 pm

Tony, the Museum has issued a ‘content guide’ to help adults decide whether this is appropriate for their children. It includes samples of some of the text and images on display.

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