If you take a cadaver, extract all of the bodily fluids, replace them with plastics and give it a nifty pose, is it art, science or a sideshow?
Last weekend I visited the Bodies Human: Anatomy in Motion exhibit at the Denno’s Museum in Traverse City; one of the many controversial exhibits featuring real human bodies preserved through a process called plastination. The exhibit featured an assortment of full bodies set in different poses, skin removed as to show the muscles beneath. Bodies Human also featured several cross-section “body slices”, as well as individual limbs, organs and other meaty bits.
There were also fetuses in jars; from 0 to 9 months.
We look like frogs.
The brochure for Bodies Human said “The main goal of Bodies Human is to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body, as well as to show the effects of poor health, good health and how various lifestyle choices can affect our health.”. I’m not so sure if it met that goal. I did see a diseased heart and a few sets of lungs I suspected of sneaking off to the boys room for a smoke, but that was it.
The exhibit was pretty interesting from a scientific standpoint anyway. Not many people outside of the medical community get to see actual human parts. I learned in biology dissecting little animals that the pictures in the books don’t necessarily depict the reality of somethings innards. Bodies Human does a good job of pointing this out. I thought I knew the male reproductive system pretty well, but I was surprised to learn the seminal vesicles, along with the testes, are sheathed in body fat growing seamlessly from belly blubber.
The resin casts of vascular systems floating bodiless in space were pretty neat too.
From what I’ve seen, Bodies Human is one of the more tame of the “bodies” exhibits. Aside from a few odd specimens, the “plastinates” were simply posed as they might have been found in life. Many of the other exhibits, including Body Worlds and Bodies: The Exhibition, feature highly modified “plastinates” of all levels of human anatomy hell, from barely skinned to nearly skeletal and everything in between. Here, it seems like the exhibits are more of a freak show than anything that could be very instructive.
When I first went to see the exhibit, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about looking at actual human bodies, which once housed actual people with actual lives. However, I found it surprisingly easy to forget about that. Maybe it was because people don’t normally walk around without skin or faces. The best analogy I can give is the “plastinates” look like the preserved bread used in bakery displays; it is real bread, but it doesn’t seem real.
The other part of the actual human thing is the origin of the bodies has always been a bit suspect in these exhibits. The original “body” exhibit, Body Worlds, is the only one I know that can actually verify the bodies were donated willingly. The rest of the exhibits, including Bodies Human, get theirs from suppliers somewhere in China or Taiwan. Many a article or investigative news show have looked into the Asian cadaver trade and their links to these types of exhibits. Many people find the exhibits appalling for this reason alone, not to mention religious or social taboos.
I honestly would probably still visit the exhibits, even if they were not made from actual people. Maybe it’s sideshow appeal, or maybe I’ve got a serious case of morbid curiosity. I would love to see the “three headed” camel, or a guy’s body separating while riding a skinless horse.