Monday, May 15, 2006

The Human Body, Exposed

Over the weekend I went with my family to see the BODY WORLDS exhibit at its stop in St. Paul, MN. If you haven't been subject to all the promotion and are not aware, BODY WORLDS is an exhibit of specially preserved human bodies that have been prepared and put on display by a German physician named Dr. Gunther von Hagens. He has developed this technique that replaces the water and fat with plastics that preserve the tissue and leave it quite natural in appearance. He then poses the preserved bodies in ways that are both artistic and educationally realistic at the same time. In a style that is unusual for this sort of display, he even signs his finished works, furthering the impression that the finished display is a work of art.

It is a strange combination to have human bodies presented as works of art. The specimens are certainly artistically presented, and the final result is something that is striking to see. They are simultaneously visually interesting to look at, and also intellectually interesting to see. It is borderline creepy to have these actual dead bodies all around, but they are presented in a way that seems to deflect most of that feeling. The displays are just enough out of the ordinary that they don't seem to be quite real, and so it is possible to look at them as interesting exhibits rather than as posed dead bodies.

In addition to the couple dozen nearly whole bodies that are on display, there are lots of preserved body parts that are arranged in ways that allow one to see how the various parts work together and what they look like up close. Some are fairly classic examples of joints, ligaments, organs and so on, and then there are also examples of reconstructed parts - bones with plates, artificial hips, replacement knees and heart valves. Given that all of the donors were people who had presumably lived a full life and been recipients of the usual medical care it is not surprising that there would be quite a few of these sorts of examples. There were also several displays that compared diseased organs with healthy ones. Not surprisingly, there were quite a few examples of lungs that had been ruined by cigarette smoking, and a variety of different cancers and tumors.

For anyone who isn't terribly squeamish about seeing this sort of thing it is certainly worth making an effort to see. The exhibits allow an insight into the way we are built that you just don't get any other way. The entire exhibition can easily be appreciated on a purely artistic basis, on an purely educational basis, or as a marvelous combination of both.


wunelle said...

I've seen coverage of these in several places (though I've never seen the exhibits) and they were absolutely mesmerizing. I'm almost contemplating a trip to STP to take it in, as it'll likely never make it to Appleton.

Did the kids go, and were they OK with it?

Esbee said...

Squeamish here. I've peeked at pics and not felt comfy.

Jeffy said...

wunelle - We did take the kids, and they did pretty well with it. They were quite interested in seeing what is inside a person. The place was REALLY crowded and busy, and after the first couple of bodies they can tend to look a bit alike, so they probably would have liked to have spent less time there. The Science Museum of Minnesota, where this was hosted, showed a related film on their Omnitheater, which we saw first, so it got to be a rather long day for the kiddies.

If you want to find a place to see the exhibit there may be other sites that you fly to where it can be seen. There are apparently 3 exhibits going on right now - with one in Houston and one in Denver in addition to the one in St. Paul. The Denver show will be moving to Boston in the fall, but beyond that they are not publishing a schedule for future shows.

esbee - I am sure you are not alone. I purposely avoided putting any sample pics on the posting just so as not to force them upon anyone who might not care to see them.

mango said...

Sounds ghoulish but intriguing. I hope it comes my way!

Bianca said...

Holy mother of something. Wow. That has to be controversial in your area, right? Why have I not heard of this? I would think think this kind of display would be inspiring riots or something even more than elephant dung on jesus. I mean these are real people right? People who donated their bodies to science?

Actually, I studied Leonardo DaVinci in college and he did all kind of creepy things to study the human body, including befriending sick people in order to get their bodies to dissect when they died. Sounds like this would be right up his alley.

I must admit I'd be interested to see it, although maybe sickened.

Bianca said...

Okay, I looked at some of the pictures and it's all presented kind of science classroom-like so I guess it's not that controversial. In fact, I believe this is the same process they use to prepare cadavers for some medical schools to study. Some of those horse and rider things are a bit strange, though.

Jeffy said...

bianca - It hasn't really stirred up any controversy here. I had heard some rumblings before the show got here about concerns over where the bodies come from, but the folks who run this exhibit have spent a lot of time and effort to ensure that the bodies were all freely donated for this specific purpose. It all is presented in a fairly respectful and educational manner, so I think that most folks are OK with it, even if they are put off by the thought and don't want to see it themselves.

I don't know about whether this same technique is used for med school cadavers, I think those are still pretty much just soaked in formaldehyde and left as close to original as possible. This 'plastination' process that is used on these bodies replaces all the fats and liquids and leaves the tissue pretty dry and hard. I don't know how well this process would work for disection purposes, and I think that the preparation process takes much more time and expense than is warranted on a cadaver that will be used for med school purposes, but I could be wrong.