It’s not every day that you can enter the hallowed portals of a national museum and find yourself confronted with a slow, syrupy porn-jazz soundtrack over video footage of two bonobos resolutely humping. But then, not every exhibition is Sexual Nature, which finished earlier this month at London’s iconic Natural History Museum. I don’t want to be premature, but I think it might just be the best thing I’ll see all year.
Animals, it seems, are all at it. The revelations begin with two in a series of surprising ‘Facts of Life’: I learn that bedbugs have a high rate of female mortality owing to a violent process known as ‘traumatic insemination’ and that sea hares (a species which apparently exists) mate in a massive circular submarine daisy chain.
Following the sequence of spacious, uncluttered rooms, each decorated with classy black-and-white photographs of a different species in the heat of carnal embrace, it becomes clear it’s not just the invertebrates. Of course, when you happen to have an unparalleled taxidermy collection, mounting two foxes tail to tail, with a note about the vixen’s troublesome tendency to hold her partner in an hour long, inextricable vaginal clamp, is clearly the most sensible use of your resources. Although I can’t help thinking the curators missed out on a chance to switch the music to Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got A Hold On Me.
The exhibition is mostly textual: the explanatory material takes up more space than much of the actual visible collection, which consists mainly of tiny insects and the skeleton of a walrus cock. The highlight is a series of films made by art house actress and probable maniac Isabella Rossellini, entitled Green Porno, in which the Blue Velvet star dresses up as a salmon, a spider and a praying mantis, while describing, in the first person, the mating rituals of each in surrealistic detail.
It’s probably apparent that this is one of the funniest hours I have ever spent in any museum or gallery, and I’m sure in some ways that was a deliberate decision on the part of the curators. With its ‘not for the faint-hearted’ warnings and matter of fact presentation, the NHM is having a sidelong prod at the ridiculous nexus of repression and embarrassment that has coalesced around human sexual desire, presenting sexuality as inescapably comic and then asking why we find it so.
The final room features an interactive feature (not that interactive) where visitors vote on a series of questions relating to human sexual behaviour (what some would call morality) and attraction. This wouldn’t have been a great exhibition to bring a date to, containing as it does the coded message, ‘I wanna fuck you like an animal’, but it was a fascinating attempt to elicit recognition of the uncanny closeness of the animal world to our own. And if you didn’t see the ‘fornicating slipper limpet’ you missed out.