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Culture: Son-of-a-Dung

New Carnegie exhibit is number two with museum guests

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Long before Bodies ... The Exhibition came to the Carnegie Science Center, the globe-trotting exhibit had already stirred controversy. There were so many reasons: religious respect for the dead, skepticism about the bodies' origins, individual gag reflexes, whatever.

But for some reason, people are all smiles when it comes to excrement. Another touring anatomical show, The Scoop on Poop, opened Jan. 26 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It's based on the children's book by Wayne Lynch, a popular science writer and photographer. And if you don't know where the R.P. Simmons Family Gallery is, just follow the tittering: The lobby receptionists and security guards will snicker as they point you in the right direction.

The chuckles continue in the gallery, where parents smile and kids cry "Ew!" as they point at replicated balls of elephant dung; elephants, a placard explains, eat 400 pounds of shrubbery a day. The exhibit is brightly colored and spread out among folding, aluminum-framed displays; each panel has an enthusiastic headline: "Dung Detectives!" "Dung for Dinner!" "Fossil Feces!"

"It's a bizarre kind of show," said Mark Lese, a 35-year-old local artist who visited the exhibit last Thursday afternoon, guided by a "morbid curiosity. I thought it was interesting that people devote their entire lives of studying" -- he hesitated for a half-second -- "poop."

And what a study: The Scoop on Poop illustrates the lives of dung-beetles, the uses of methane fuel, the joys of patty-tossing competitions, and the way Maasai and Saburu villagers use dung to waterproof their grass huts. One panel describes how the dik-dik antelope marks its territory with its leavings. (After all, what dignity does a "dik-dik" have to protect?) An audio guide even offers translations for "poop" in different languages: "In French we say merde," says a jolly male voice.

After a few minutes, visitors stop snickering and become solemn and adult. One couple, standing before a photo of an Indian woman rolling animal dung, discussed the merits of bio-fuel.

"They eat it?" said the young woman.

"No, they burn it," said the young man. "Eat it? What are you talking about?"

The exhibit's real winner is the "Dung Beetle Derby," a kind of scatological pinball machine. Two players use controls to push their dung-beetles up a mucky hill, with each beetle pushing its own excretory sphere. Push too fast and the beetle loses its grip on the dung, which rolls downhill.

"I think the Bodies show really creeped some people out," said Lese. "I think it's interesting, to see the nervous system, the muscular system, the anatomy. But I think this is much more user-friendly."

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