Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I See Dead People

When I asked my wife what she wanted to do for Mother's Day, she had a unique request - she wanted to go to the Science Museum of Minnesota to see the Body Worlds exhibit.

Cool! So that's what we did.

This is a traveling exhibit that has already caused quite a stir in LA, Cleveland and Chicago - and is currently showing throughout the summer in St. Paul, Houston and Denver.

At first we thought it would be a good idea to go on Mother's Day because most families would be out doing more "motherly" types of things than going to a science museum, but it turns out that every day is a popular day for this particular show.

The concept of looking at self-donated cadavers at first seems like it would be too "medical" to be enjoyable, but the exhibit was really very tastefully done and not nearly as morbid or as gross as you might expect.

Using a process called "plastination" invented by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the specimens' body fluids are replaced by a special liquid plastic that slowly becomes rock hard. This allows them to be posed in any position, and once fully hardened, cut in various ways.

At a minimum, all specimens have had their skin removed to reveal the muscle fabric of their bodies. But most have also been "cut away" further to show internal organs, nerves, arteries and bones in various configurations. As well, you'll also find "slides" of thinly sliced body parts including full human-sized slices of various thicknesses. In one case, a body is literally cut in half, right down the middle - leaving the left and right sides of the penis to grimace about.

Another fascinating technology involves the way they are able to replace all the blood in every artery, vein and capillary with a special liquid that is impervious to a certain acid. After the blood vessels harden completely, the body is then dipped into this acid and everything but the circulatory system is dissolved, leaving nothing but the network of vessels, but in the shape of the body they came from.

But the display that seemed to be the most sobering was that of a pregnant woman in her 3rd trimester. Here, as she lies on a table, her belly and uterus have been opened up to show the baby nestled within. Whereas most displays draw lots of conversation and interaction, the audience gathered around this exhibit was quiet and reflective - in reverence to the humanness of the donors.

All in all it was a very interesting, educational and yes, entertaining show. Some of the comments in the guest book included the fact that they should "require this for all medical students," and "is a must-see for anyone interested in biology." Another comment claimed that the curators may have taken "a bit too much artistic liberty" in reference to the way some specimens were positioned. Case in point, one body was shown holding his own diseased gall bladder in his hand so you could see the cancerous gall stones inside. Others were posed in various positions to demonstrate how the muscles would react to such events as playing basketball or hanging from gymnastic rings.

I understand that after every showing the museum staff has to pick up packs of discarded cigarettes, due to the effective demonstration of healthy -vs- diseased lungs.

Although the exhibit may not be for everyone, I didn't see anyone there disgusted, embarrassed or disappointed in the show. I may however caution against bringing kids who are still too young to understand after overhearing a 3 year-old girl ask her mother, "Do I have to get cut up when I die?"

But my own 10 year-old daughter seemed fascinated by the experience -

lthough she may someday need some help understanding why her husband's penis (because that'll be the first time she sees a real one) is not skinless and ghostly white.


Anonymous said...


I could not be a doctor. I'd spend most of my time crying in the corner. :-(

Mooselet said...

I saw a doco on The Discovery Channel on this, and my friend tells me it's coming to Brisbane. We have planned to go. I find it fascinating, although I agree it's not for everyone... like Dave.

A skinless and ghostly white penis. That mental image makes me giggle.

Schnozz said...

I heard that they'll never run out of volunteers for this thing--lots of people want to be in it.

And now I'm going to ask Mr. S if he wants to fly to Denver with me to see this. We kept talking about going when it was in Chicago, but we never got around to it.

In that vein (ha!), the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia is pretty cool too, I hear.

Anonymous said...

Sure beats the opera.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the first time women see a penis (on their wedding night) they scream and run away. Then they pull themselves together and deal with it because, after all, it's the most direct way to make babies.

BTW, the guy in the exhibit who was severed in half . . . if you asked him, he'd probably tell you that his was, in actuality, a REAL penis. :-)

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Between the post and these comments, the word "penis" has officially been listed 5 (oops 6) times now. I can't wait to meet my new Google traffic!

yellojkt said...

I've heard of this exhibit, but I'm a little too squeamish to stomach it. And if you really want some traffic use the word "maiesiophiliac" in a blog. Well, not really. Just one hit so far.

Jess Riley said...

Wow! Sounds like my kind of exhibit. :)

Anonymous said...

Some people see something that fell together, but I see a superb design in the human body. I think it is great that you took the children to see this exhibit.

Bostonbootgirl said...

I really wanted to see this. I have a number of anatomy books that I draw from all the time trying to learn.

Anyhoo...that last photo you have there is inspired from this:
It's from an Andreas Vesalius book, a great doctor and recorder of human anatomy (1514-1564. I'm guessing they mentioned that fellow at the exhibit. Many of the drawings from his books (drawn mostly by commissioned artists) are fascinating and beautiful works of art in their own right.

Anonymous said...

I am typically a bit squimish but felt this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for our children to see something like this, that is why I wanted to go. I try not to pass any squimish traits on to the kids. I was very pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect in the exhibit and did not feel at all "grossed out" as I had expected. We spent 3plus hours in the exhibit and if I have the chance to go again- I will. If it comes to your area really consider going. I felt like a learned a few college courses worth of info as well as a new appreciation for our wonderous bodies in those 3 short hours.
Mrs. Harmonica Man