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 Sexual Nature? Representing sexuality in the science museum. Science and Culture 25:2. 2016.

Co-authored with Simon Lock and Angela Cassidy, this peer-reviewed journal article explores the mutual construction of (public) scientific knowledge, society and sexuality, through an examination of the Natural History Museum’s Sexual Natures exhibition in 2011. This paper was awarded the Editor’s Choice in 2017.

In February 2011, the London Natural History Museum (NHM) opened the temporary exhibition Sexual Nature. The show aimed to provide a ‘candid exploration of sex in the natural world’ (NHM 2011a), and included animal sexual behaviour, the evolution of sex and the origins of human sexuality. From the start, the exhibition was designed to grab attention: from pop culture references and slick design, to the celebrity studded launch event coinciding with Valentine’s Day. New taxidermy mounts were commissioned of animals mating in – often seemingly unlikely - positions; and the exhibition encompassed further events including evening debates and a ‘Snail Sex Show’. These approaches paid off: Sexual Nature was highly successful, attracting almost five million visitors and winning the Museums+ Heritage 2012 Award for ‘best temporary or touring’ exhibition, for its ‘brave’ and ‘risk taking’ approach (Anon, 2012).

Sexual Nature provides us with an opportunity to consider how contemporary debates around sexualities and sexual norms are being negotiated in an unusual cultural setting – the public museum. Of particular interest to us as scholars of science and society is the location of the NHM, both as a site of scientific knowledge production and as it describes itself - ‘a voice of authority on the natural world’ (NHM 2011b, p1,2). Through an analysis of the exhibition content and of interviews with the scientists and curators involved in its production, we aim to answer the following questions. What can this exhibition tell us about scientific and social constructions of modern sexualities? How does the exhibition reflect changing scientific and societal debates about the origin, existence and acceptability of non-reproductive sexual behaviours in both human and nonhuman animals? More pragmatically, we also consider how and why this exhibition came about in the particular scientific, commercial and cultural contexts of the NHM, at a time when the museum sector is undergoing a period of change. Museums are moving from sites solely dedicated to the representation of knowledge to more active sites of participation, commerce and dialogue with audiences. As such this paper will also contribute to debates around the display and communication of science in public and cultural settings.