Large crowds are expected today to pack in to the loading dock at Auckland Museum, where an autopsy of a great white shark is due to start about now. (Actually I should say public necropsy, rather than autopsy -- apparently that's what it's called when the body on the slab is that of an animal, rather than human, as the Auckland Museum's press release helpfully points out.)
Speaking as someone who had to make a hasty exit from the fourth form science lab during the bullock's eye dissection class, I won't be watching the delayed video broadcast, available here at 2pm today NZ time. But I'd guess that lots of people round the world will be: the story's been picked up by the Times Online.
"Unlike the famous scene in the shark horror film Jaws where Richard Dreyfuss cuts open a menacing great white to discover a car licence plate and a crushed tin, the NZ scientists hope to find objects of the (previously) living marine variety.
“We’re interested in the gut content to see what the shark has eaten – it could be anything from seals, penguins, fish or even whale blubber,” Dr Trnski [marine curator at Auckland Museum] said, adding that the female’s reproductive organs will also be investigated.
“We’re certainly hoping not to find any human bits inside, but you never know.”"
Hmmm... a few interesting things going on here. Dismissing the possibility suggested by the Times's piece that the scientists are expecting to find human bits inside the shark's reproductive organs (a new twist on an old theme), I'm interested to note:
1. Public dissections as the latest installment in the ongoing one-upmanship contest between Te Papa and Auckland Museum: See your stinky old collossal squid and raise you the ultimate predator of the deep ... read 'em and weep.
2. The seemingly endless public taste for death and the visual mysteries of the dead body. Manifest in our time with the ubiquitous CSI TV franchise and the extraordinary popularity of autopsy fiction by Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs (as well of course in grim splatter death-fests like the very nasty Saw movies), a taste for the ghoulish seems to be present back as far as you like in human history, from gladiators being torn apart by lions in front of cheering crowds in the Roman Colliseum to the system of public executions which only ended in Britain in 1868, commonly drawing enormous revelling hordes.
Perhaps the most well-known art-historical representation of this public taste for visceral horror is Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), where the body of a recently-executed criminal is dissected under the gaze of a number of interested spectators who have paid an entrance fee to be present (and a fee to the artist in order to have their presence in the theatre of death recorded for posterity). I like to think the man at the front looking slightly nervously away from the body and out towards the viewer has had second thoughts and is about to make a bolt for it, much as I did from the science lab.
3. A growing sense that with stunts like these, museums are outstripping galleries at gauging the contemporary public taste for spectacle. Call it research if you like (and no doubt the dissection of the shark is a useful thing to do, I don't mean at all to be snarky), but putting it out in the public arena renders it a social event at the same time, much like surgical operations in the 17th century Netherlands. Of course autopsies and dead sharks are a specialised area of art practice that Damien Hirst has made all his own, but given the costs of international freight we're vastly unlikely to see any of these works in New Zealand's public art galleries. If gore fests / dead monsters / 70s paranoia films are to your taste, better nip down to the Auckland Museum's loading bay for a gander at the real thing.