After visiting the Body Worlds exhibit today, my short summary is that it was disappointing, but it wasn’t all bad.
I’ll get the complaints over first. Here’s the thing: I like my biology wet. It’s supposed to be vital and dynamic and messy and complicated, but it all ties together into a lovely integrated whole. A collection of plastinated cadavers is precisely the opposite of what I enjoy about the science: it’s dead and static and distressingly dry. Seriously, when you’ve got a kidney on a table, it should look meaty and quiver a bit and lie there in a nice saucy pool of blood—it shouldn’t look like gray papier mache. It bothered me intensely that everything looked just a bit…off. Like plastic. Yeah, I know, it was plastic. It still bugged me.
Then there were the freakish poses. They were distracting for two reasons: they negated the impression of the organism as an integrated whole, instead promoting a view of them as exploded parts; and they often seemed to be more extravagant demonstrations of the dissector’s skill, rather than helping to understand. Cutting a pair of slits up a cadaver’s back and reflecting the flap containing the vertebral column back so it looks like a wide flat tail with the brain at the end is clever and creative…but it really doesn’t help me visualize the structure. There’s a “look at what I can do!” vibe to too many of the displays.
Some of them were examples of trying too hard to make anatomy interesting, as if just simply exposing the hidden mysteries within was not enough. There was one called “Fan Man” that had muscles splayed in an array around it, like meaty fins and wings; one that was cut apart and spread out in a vertical column, like a cartoon character jumping out of its skin and muscle and bones; many others in difficult athletic poses that contorted the body in odd ways. Here’s a suggestion to von Hagens: pose a pair of cadavers in the midst of intercourse, with windows cut into various places to display the internal arrangements. It’ll be a sensational gimmick! You could maybe even put them in a separate room and charge extra for a viewing.
Basically, I was expecting science. There is very little science to the exhibit. There is a lot of P.T. Barnum.
It’s still worth seeing. I can think of a few redeeming qualities that made the experience a net positive.
While it’s not very useful biology, it is a good learning experience for the person who doesn’t know much about what’s going on under their skin. It demystifies and disenchants the human body a bit—it’s not magic under there, it’s meat. As a card-carrying naturalist, I endorse that message. Informed citizens should be aware of their animal construction, even if they can’t name all the bits, and should learn to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of their organization.
Some few of the exhibits might actually qualify as art. Not the gimmicky ones, or the ones that strain too hard to put their poor dead subjects into unusual poses, but the simple, subtle ones. For instance, there was a magnificent vascular preparation of just the blood vessels of the forearm and hand, floating in a solution. It was incredible in its detail and delicacy. There was a woman, simply standing with arms upraised, releasing a pair of plastinated birds—she wasn’t elaborately flayed, the pose and the dissector’s skill weren’t distractingly presented, and you could just appreciate the beauty of the form. That was respectful, even ennobling.
Primarily, though, this is an exhibit of memento mori. Do not be too proud, and remember that you too will one day die. What we were looking at were the remains of dead people (again, one of the sins of the overwrought poses and bizarre dissections was that it detracted from what should have been an ongoing, emphasized awareness of the reality of these people’s deaths.) I found the most affecting example of this principle was one of the last displays, “Pregnant Woman Reclining.” As you might guess from the title, it was a young woman lying on her side, very pregnant, with the fetus curled within her, and of course, everything exposed and laid open. She was looking away from the carnage, eyes fixed on nothing. It was a poignant tableau, and you had to be aware of the tragedy there—it was beauty and sadness and strangeness all at once.
Making our mortality apparent is a virtue of the exhibit. If only all of the specimens were given the benefit of that restraint and dignity, I would be much more positive in my review.