Odyssey under the Skin

The automatic door opens as I sweep into the special exhibitions hall on the fourth floor of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Inside, a giant squid kicks off the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition. Complete sea animals and skeletons stand waiting in the first section of the hall.

As I enter the second section, I am immediately taken up by magical scenes of dissected bodies. I see a bull with all its muscles hanging out in full splendour, followed by a galloping giraffe showing off its slender cervical muscles like a five-meter tall headdress. Just beside it stands a camel, half of its body exposed, nodding its head in a frozen gesture. Further down, the complex blood vessel system of an ostrich is on display with stunning accuracy.

The plastinated bodies of camels in the exhibition.

Many of the plastinated bodies showcased in Animal Inside Out reveal an organism’s constitution in a unique way. You can distinguish the internal organs in detail. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Organs belonging to the ten body systems are shown in eloquent detail. In particular, this includes astonishing insights into the cardiovascular and muscular systems. These fabulous bodies are undressed to show off their true nature!

View of a bull specimen from the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

On this bull, as with many of the specimens exhibited in Animal Inside Out, you can study the muscles that make up an organism with the help of an anatomical atlas. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

I have taught many subjects ranging from biology and genetics to animal behaviour. When I was teaching comparative anatomy, I made use of textbooks and anatomical atlases to show the structures that make up the body, but observing these phenomena on real animal corpses was much more convincing for the students. The word anatomy comes from the Greek word anatemnein which indeed means to dissect or cut up. Today, I am in charge of the Vertebrate Collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which include millions of various anatomical parts. This has allowed me to see and examine living organisms from all angles. Even so, this exhibit taught me a unique way of revealing the true nature of living beings.

An ostrich specimen, showing the capillary network.

Even the capillary network (very fine blood vessels) of an ostrich can be seen in Animal Inside Out in its original three-dimensional form…as if the rest of the body’s building blocks had been blown away to leave only this network in place. This feat would be impossible to do otherwise. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

My anatomical teachings would have been even more successful if I had been able to use plastination—a technique used to prepare the specimens shown in this exhibition. Among the 600 skeletal muscles that make up the body, only some were readily identifiable on the previously frozen skinned specimens that I was using; in this exhibition, they are almost all there. The spatial configuration of internal organs is true to life, making it easy to figure out the interrelations between body systems.

Cross-section view of an elephant.

One of the advantages of the technique used in Animal Inside Out is that once the bodies are plastinated, they can be cut up into very fine slices to reveal anatomical details that are otherwise invisible. Indeed, you can see the detailed internal structures in this cross-section of an elephant, right down to the histological level. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The introduction of plastination goes back to 1977 when an anatomist from the University of Heidelberg, Gunther von Hagens, came up with a more practical method of observing human internal organs in situ. The somewhat painstaking technique consists in replacing all the water and fat in the organism (up to 70% in fact) by injecting an epoxy/silicone polymer that hardens afterwards; this produces a dry, odourless specimen that can be handled easily and lasts a long time.

The giraffe presented in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

Animals are presented in many forms. Here a skinned giraffe stands beside another life-size specimen that has been reassembled from a series of fine cross-sections. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The word plastination is derived from the Greek “plassein” which means to give form. A bargain for anatomists! Plastination has opened interesting perspectives in several disciplines, in particular teaching. In fact, human anatomy professors have greatly benefited from it. It was well received by the scientific community, as witnessed by the many scientific papers on the subject to date. The technique even broke into the public arena in 1995 with BodyWorlds, an exhibition on the human body.

Two caribou specimens.

Bodies exhibited in Animal Inside Out were mounted to reflect natural postures that show movement, such as these two caribou, or reveal a behaviour trait. Image : Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Animal Inside Out is a fascinating anatomy lesson! I see it as a mix of science, technology and art, not just pure and simple anatomy. Nature has so many wonders and there are so few opportunities to contemplate them! This exhibition is a must-see.

A human body in the Animal Inside Out exhibition.

The presence of a human body is an unhoped-for opportunity to make detailed comparisons between our own bodies and those of the various animals on display.
Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Text translated from the French.

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2 Responses to Odyssey under the Skin

  1. Pingback: Plastination and Taxidermy: Which is Best for a Museum? | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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