The afterlife of Hai Hai the baby minke whale (pictured above) started inauspiciously. His three-tonne corpse, beached on a Chinese island in 2009, was already rotting by the time scientists reached it. Undeterred, a team of almost three dozen anatomists swung into action, labouring for nearly two years to preserve, dehydrate and plastinate it, before reassembling it to reveal musculature on one side, and bones, nerves and organs on the other.
Now, Hai Hai, the world’s largest plastinated marine animal, is the star of Sea Creatures, an exhibition of more than 50 similarly preserved aquatic animals that will be touring the UK over the next few months. His similarly flayed companions in the show include numerous sharks, a manta ray, a porpoise and a giant squid, but ocean dwellers ranging from crabs to cuttlefish are also represented, as well as some 150 individual body parts.
Any fish market serves up a visual banquet of aquatic viscera – fresh from the sea, to boot. But when the sea’s charismatic megafauna are presented for our delectation, we seek assurances that they are being served up with respect, and not merely to sate our more ghoulish appetites – a concern that has lingered over plastination spectaculars for decades, largely thanks to the boundary-pushing exhibitions of human cadavers staged by the technique’s inventor, Gunther von Hagens. Educational value is the usual fig-leaf held up against charges of indecency.
Sea Creatures, presented by a former associate of von Hagens, stresses that its exhibits have been “ethically sourced” – although Hai Hai is the only specimen whose provenance is described. The curation is generally sound, with sections devoted not just to the flamboyant (a staring sailfish) but also to the humble (a cabinet of shellfish). It does have its idiosyncrasies: a salami-sliced penguin is a non sequitur in an area otherwise devoted to invertebrates. And the show’s few wince-worthy grotesques seem inadvertent, rather than designed: another penguin grinning manically as it opens its skin; a porpoise split like a banana.
Further credibility comes from a partnership with the Scottish Association for Marine Science, which has provided crisply informative labels describing the anatomies and behaviours of the animals on display. The presentation of body parts works well. The material fact of the crucian carp’s pea-sized brain makes its ability to learn from experience all the more striking. Everyone knows what gills look like from the outside, but their corsetry, winnowed free from flesh, is a different matter altogether. And a shark’s stomach turns out to be surprisingly small but densely corrugated; when it comes to absorbing nutrients it’s surface area, not volume, that’s important.
When it comes to the complete specimens like the sunfish pictured above, however, there’s little to help viewers understand what they’re looking at: there aren’t any explanatory diagrams or even illustrations of the animals as they might have appeared in life. (The show’s companion smartphone app does offer some media, but it’s more entertaining than informative.) Plastination can use colours to add visual appeal and highlight certain tissues; it also allows for poses both naturalistic and contrived – attributes used to spectacular effect at the Animal Inside Out exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum in 2012, for example. Here though the subjects’ stiff poses and bleached appearance give no hint of the elegant motion or vibrant colours we associate with marine life.
Once the initial shock and awe of gawping at a whale shark’s innards had passed, my reaction to the parade of bloodless guts was mounting ennui. Without contextual information – age, sex, locale, distinguishing features, circumstances of death and collection – it was sometimes hard to remember that this monochrome tableau is made up of remarkable animals, remarkably preserved, rather than waxworks in a slightly past-it museum. Sea Creatures may offer sufficient gawping opportunities to satisfy those who just want to graze the surface of marine biology. But it’s likely to frustrate those who want to dive more deeply.
Sea Creatures, at the RHS Lawrence Hall, London to August 30, then touring to Edinburgh, Harrogate and Belfast