Things I don’t expect to see in a museum: a giant climbing frame in the middle of a gallery, a taxidermy gorilla being tended to with hairspray, a pair of cheeky chimps caught at it and preserved mid-coitus for posterity.
Things you will be delighted by at the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition, Monkey Business: a giant climbing frame in the middle of a gallery, which you can most definitely climb. A taxidermy gorilla being tended to with hairspray, if you’re lucky enough to follow the collections team in after-hours. A pair of cheeky chimps caught at it and preserved mid-coitus for posterity – and oh my god, will everyone else be looking at them too.
From monkeys to lemurs, chimpanzees to bushbabies, Monkey Business invites us all to get to know ‘the family’. It brings together more than 60 magnificent taxidermy specimens, breathtaking wildlife photography and some touchscreen digital wizardry to show us how our primate relatives really live and play in the wild. Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend an evening exploring our family tree with the team behind the exhibition.
Honestly, I was a little dubious at the thought that I might be spending two hours in the company of a panopticon of stuffed monkeys. I needn’t have been. This has been a labour of love for Dr Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, planned and designed with a skilled team of curators, researchers and taxidermists over twenty-five years. It shows in the attention that’s been lavished on each cheeky monkey to make sure they’re ready for a moment in the spotlight, and in the care that’s been taken to tell our primate friends’ stories. You’ll find tales of tree swinging, nit picking and physical evolution here, sure. But scratch a little deeper and you’ll see our own complex social traditions and relationships reflected right back. Monkey Business is as much the story of how we all belong to the primate family as it is of what makes us different.
The conservators amongst us will know why the exhibition space is dimly-lit. For the intrepid explorer though, it really sets the scene for a journey of discovery through the jungle. You’re greeted at each turn by lush green foliage, flickers of monkey business on film and the friendly faces of our closest relatives beckoning you in to find out more about their lives. These once living, breathing creatures still have bags of charm and character now they’re on display; I found a spirit animal in a sleepy fat-tailed dwarf lemur tucked away for a nap in a tree. If you’re taking a peek at the howler monkeys at the right time, then hopefully the hoots and laughter of our own cheeky little monkeys as they practice their climbing will echo in the air too. The story arc, the case design, the thought given to how our own primate behaviour might add to the space, it all makes for one of the nicest journeys I’ve taken through a museum this year.
And please don’t worry, no monkeys were harmed in the making of this exhibition. The Natural Sciences team at National Museums Scotland do outstanding work documenting the natural world around us which is very quickly disappearing, much of it shared on the Museums’ blog.
If you find yourself with a quiet afternoon this winter, you’d do well to eschew a selfie with the giraffe tongue and skip past the T-rex skeleton straight in to Monkey Business. The family are waiting to welcome you home.
Monkey Business runs until Sunday 23 April 2017 at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Admission: £10 adults, £8 concessions.