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Professor Cockroach

Zoe Sullivan, LondonOctober 4, 2013

Cockroaches may provoke widespread disgust among humans, but they have managed to survive virtually unchanged for millions of years. London's Science Museum is offering a cockroach's perspective on climate change.

A group of people dressed as cockroaches. (photo: Zoe Sullivan)
Image: DW/Z. Sullivan

Cockroaches are some of the most reviled animals on the planet. Still, despite the reaction they prompt in human beings, these animals have been around for approximately 350 million years. And they don't look like disappearing any time soon.

The Danish artists' group Superflex decided to turn this revulsion on its head, and to take cockroaches as a model of adaptation. This ironic approach made cockroaches the ideal vehicle for touring a distinctively human domain, London's Science Museum.

The tour had its origins a few years ago when the museum unveiled a large new display on climate change, and it put out a call to artists for proposals on engaging visitors with the exhibit. Rather than adding to the exhibit itself, Superflex chose to adopt a cockroach's point of view, and to take people – temporarily transformed into cockroaches through costumes – on a tour of humanity's greatest inventions.

"Let's face it: we cockroaches haven't had to evolve for millions of years", says tour guide, Professor John Cockroach. "Whereas the human beings on the other hand, in order to make up for their lack of evolution, change the world around them." Out of costume, the guide is Guy Henderson, a member of the museum's theater troupe.

Able to swim half an hour under water or to digest glue from the back of a postage stamp, cockroaches have tremendous survival skills. As Professor Cockroach jokes at a certain point on the tour, cockroaches have nothing to fear. For them, this is what makes human behavior so confounding; since human beings are much more physically vulnerable, why would they do anything to damage their environment?

A group of people dressed as cockroaches. (photo: Zoe Sullivan)
Cockroach tour participants get a new perspective on the museum's exhibitsImage: DW/Z. Sullivan

The David Attenborough of cockroaches

The Professor regularly leads intrusions of cockroaches through the museum, attempting to explain to them the reasoning behind inventions like the steam engine and the Model T Ford. According to the Professor, the latter is a clear example of "cockroach envy." It's a human attempt to have a black shell like a cockroach's.

"He's sort of like the David Attenborough of cockroaches," says Rasmus Nielsen, one of Superflex's members, when describing today's tour guide. "He likes to think about and understand what humans are really trying to do, and he then guides people through a long line of industrial highlights, and then they end up at this climate change exhibition at the very end."

'Rushing' is one of the activities that the Professor loves to do with his willing – and often giggling – group of cockroach tourists. The Professor encourages all the roaches to scuttle quickly from one end of a hall to another. Other museum visitors, those dressed as ordinary humans, stop and gawk as cockroaches of almost two meters in height scramble past.

A mobile attraction

While aiming to share a unique perspective on human technology and the changing climate, the tour itself is slowly becoming one of the attractions of the museum itself.

While small children hug their parents' legs and babies cry at the sight of the human-sized beasts, others take out cameras to photograph the unusual sight. There are even requests for the cockroaches to pose with other visitors.

Roughly 5,000 people have taken the tour since it launched in 2010, proving that while the idea of dressing up as a cockroach may be odd, it's definitely got enduring appeal.

Not moralistic

Rasmussen stresses that the aim of the tour was to find a way to engage with the subject of climate change without preaching.

'Cockroach Professor' Michael Bendib explains human eating habits to an intrusion of cockroaches (Photo: Zoe Sullivan)
At the museum's café, the roaches learn about human habits such as discarding paper platesImage: DW/Z. Sullivan

"Everyone from geographers to Hollywood directors have described climate change scenarios in detail to us. We've seen loads of catastrophe films," he says. "It's not about that here. We just wanted another perspective to come to light, and then to take it from there."

By making people laugh and giving an unusual view of things, the tour hopes to bring people into contact with climate issues in a novel way. "How many times can you dress up in an awesome cockroach costume and get the perspective of a cockroach in public?" one woman taking the tour told DW, laughing.

Another museum visitor even applauded the group of cockroaches as they gathered in front of one exhibition piece in the museum.

"You guys are going to conquer the world. After we kill ourselves with our radioactive self-destruction, the cockroaches will live on," he called.