While Ryan was enjoying New York Comic Con, I decided to take the opportunity to visit some of the Big Apple’s awesome museums. I left the choice of museum up to my good friend Rick, a New York native and fellow nerd, and he ended up taking me to the South Street Seaport — think Fisherman’s Wharf, NYC-style — for a double exhibit feature, Bodies: The Exhibition [BtE] and Dialog in the Dark (to be reviewed soon). Some of you might already know about BtE, since it’s been around since 2005. Multiple variations on the theme have been around for nearly 20 years, so you may have seen Bodies: The Exhibition, or Our Body: The Universe Within, or perhaps you saw Body Worlds back when it came out in 1995. These exhibitions are all independently owned and run, but you’d be forgiven for confusing them because they’re eerily similar. Essentially, you wander through room after room of plastinated human bodies, learning about the various systems and structures under our skin, seeing comparisons of healthy versus diseased organs, and wondering how the displays were made and who on earth these people once were.
I had seen Our Bodies: The Universe Within with my biology class in high school, and as a result had a severe case of deja vu while exploring BtE. The bodies were posed in similar fashions, highlighting the same systems. The bodies also all happened to be Asian, which was rather odd and brings up a whole other issue of provenance. “Provenance”, from the French “provenir”, means “to come from”. In the museum world, every item in your collection, be it a piece of artwork, a natural history specimen, or a body, needs to have some chronological record of ownership telling you who created and owned the work, or who collected a specimen when and where. Provenance matters for academic record-keeping purposes, and from a legal standpoint. For example, in the case of Nazi-looted art, if a museum acquires a work that had been stolen from its owners, the owners and their descendants still have a legal claim.
There’s some controversy over these two “body” exhibitions because of the provenance issue, with speculation that the bodies on display belonged to executed Chinese political prisoners. I don’t know if the truth is quite so gruesome, but it’s certainly unsettling to know exactly what someone’s stomach and intestines look like but still have no idea who this person was and how they ended up here. We do know that the bodies were received from the Chinese Bureau of Police, but there’s no further information as to whether they were sold on the black market or taken from prisons. Premier Exhibitions Incorporated, the company that runs BtE, has stated that it saw documentation for each of the cadavers, but couldn’t provide proof of the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. The Body Worlds exhibition says that it gets its whole-body plastinates from donors who gave informed consent as participants in a special body donation program, but that hasn’t stopped some groups from feeling squeamish about the whole idea of displaying cadavers.
So what on earth does it mean to be plastinated? Plastination is a way of preventing decomposition that lasts longer than traditional embalming. Essentially, you replace the water and fat in tissue with plastics called curable polymers, which include silicon, epoxy, and polyester copolymer. As a result, your specimen doesn’t smell, can be manipulated, and retains a lot of its original features like shape and color. There are three centers for the Institute of Plastination, one in Germany, one in Kyrgystan, and one in China. Here are the main steps of the plastination process patented by Gunther von Hagens back in the ‘70s:
- Step 1: embalm the body (or organ) in a formaldehyde solution. You don’t want the specimen to rot while you’re preparing it.
- Step 2: do whatever dissection you need to do. Say you’re showcasing the reproductive system, well, you’d want to remove anything that’s in the way or obscures your view.
- Step 3: place your specimen in an acetone bath and freeze it. The acetone will replace all the water in the cells.
- Step 4: place your specimen in a liquid polymer bath (ex: epoxy resin), and create a vacuum. This will cause the acetone to boil out of the cells, drawing in the liquid polymer. Now your cells are filled with liquid plastic. Hooray!
- Step 5: cure the plastic with UV light or heat or gas to harden it into whatever shape you want.
Now you have yourself a plastinated specimen! Impress your friends and horrify your elderly relatives!
Ok, back to the exhibition. You start off in a room with giant wall-labels about major figures in the history of medicine, explaining when we discovered certain features of the human body. The most amazing thing about this section is how little we knew for how long. It’s not till the 1800s that the pace of discovery really starts accelerating, and that we start practicing anything like modern medicine. Frankly it’s a miracle we’ve survived this long.
You start with the skeletal system, and more layers are added (or rather, are emphasized) as you move from room to room. By the end, you’ll have seen an isolated circulatory system, every single muscle in the human body, the nervous system, the digestive system, the respiratory system (including non-smoking PSAs), the urinary system and the reproductive systems. There’s also a separate gallery containing fetuses from every point of a pregnancy, that I found fascinating if only because you can see the development of the skeletal system. In each room there are cases full of individual organs and cross-sectioned views, and a full-sized plastinated body posed in a manner that highlights the theme of that room (except for the reproductive system room). For example, in a room about prosthetics, you have a discus-thrower whose muscles have been cut away at curious points to reveal what a hip implant, a knee-restructuring, a rod-insert and back brace look like. In the respiratory system room, you’re encouraged to throw away your packets of cigarettes. In room after room, you see glossy blobs of cancer covered organs, which will renew your will to train for cancer runs and walkathons.
The whole production quality of the exhibition is excellent, with human body factoids and beautiful designs on the walls, excellent lighting, plenty of space, and the occasional video and interactive. True, the labels were often small and hard to read, and sometimes the body poses were a bit much (the bisected man high-fiving himself, the woman holding her torso muscles open like a cupboard door to reveal her organs), but the end result was a fascinating peek at what we don’t normally get to see.
I think that’s the crux of the tension surrounding this exhibition — we never get to see what’s under our skin, and we grow up thinking it’s gross or wrong, but we still want to know. This is why we have horror movies, for the fascination of getting to see the “unheimlich” aka the “uncanny”, things that we used to be intimately familiar with and are part of us but that are now taboo. It’s also why my friend at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology thinks we stop at car-wrecks. She doesn’t rubberneck because she knows exactly what mammal organs look like, but unless you’re a surgeon, a pathologist, or you work in a museum’s specimen prep lab like she does, accident scenes are your only chance to see what’s inside. Should we feel weird about an exhibition like BtE? Or should it get the same treatment as any other science/natural history topic?
It really is too bad that these types of exhibitions are bogged down in provenance issues, since at the end of the experience, you gain a whole new sense of respect for your body, and for what it does automatically every day. By proceeding in such a controversial way, the creators of the exhibitions do a disservice to the scientific content. If you knew that the cadavers were willingly donated and the whole process was documented and above-board, you could focus on learning more about your body. Knowing more about your body helps you make smarter decisions about your lifestyle and health care, and be concerned about the health of others. If you know how much left is left to learn, you may become more supportive of scientific endeavors. A lot of the messaging in this exhibition was about how to stay healthy, but there’s so much more we could talk about. Imagine displays on comparative anatomy, like if Your Inner Fish was adapted from book to exhibition. Or displays on the history of medicine, or even what cutting edge science is discovering. There’s a whole world (or universe) within, why not explore it?
Juliana hopes this post didn’t make you too squeamish. Her tweets are usually less grotesque, unless they’re about Ryan, cause he’s icky.