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

Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database