The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away.

Full sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Full-sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The exhibition, as it stands in our exhibition space, comprises eight huge animatronic animals, ranging from a full-scale white rhino (second largest land mammal in the world no less) to a gigantic house fly that is 200 x life-size (it’s really not as creepy as that sounds). Each of the models are colourful, moving (kinetically, not emotionally necessarily), and for the most part, interactive. You can lift the head of a white rhino using a crane, which goes some way to demonstrating the immense power of these beautiful animals in real life. You can also change the colours of the chameleon to make it feel either angry or sexy. Presumably, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, it will mostly be feeling sexy, though given the number of people visiting for half-term I suspect this week is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions.

The robots are built out of familiar human objects like microphones and light bulbs, which recreate the internal anatomy of the animals in a way that highlights their special features and biological adaptations. For example, the electrical sensors in the bill of the platypus are represented by large flashing lights (see below), and the mouth parts and digestive system of the house fly have been replaced by a vacuum cleaner that lights up to visually demonstrate how they suck up their self-liquefied lunch**.

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Dotted around the exhibition are 11 interactive stations that allow you to see, swim and stick to a wall, like the animals featured in the exhibition. You can camouflage against a background like a chameleon (or not if you pick up the wrong outfit), or if you’re feeling more techy, you can echolocate like a bat. You just measure the distance to the prey, you don’t have to eat the bugs.

The colourful information panels, annotated images, interactive games, and impressively sized, moving and flashing animals (not in an inappropriate way) are what make this exhibition the gold star combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative. It has something for every attention span, from those who got distracted from this blog before reaching the end of the first paragraph, to the type who reads every exhibition panel and takes notes to boot. (That’s me). I thoroughly advise paying The Robot Zoo a visit, and even better, you don’t need children as an excuse.

*Originally said by John Lydgate

**A fly will dribble saliva onto its meal which begins the digestion process externally. It will then suck up the liquefied goop. Yum.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and NatSCA Blog Manager.

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