While I was walking around New York last week I saw several posters for Bodies: The Exhibition, showing at the South Street Seaport. The poster shows a man in The Thinker’s pose … but it’s actually a cadaver with the skin removed and the brain exposed. Some colleagues I was walking with had heard of, but not seen the show. Apparently, a technique called “plastinization” is applied to real human cadavers, replacing all the water in the body with silicone, which preserves bone, flesh, and even nerves in a life-like state. It sounded intriguing to me, so I went to check it out. Despite reports of long lines and the cold weather, I headed down on Saturday morning. Luckily at that time I could walk right up and buy my ticket ($29.50 including audio tour) and enter the exhibition. When I exited a couple of hours later there were long lines waiting to get in, so I’m glad I went early.
Despite a slight but continuous sense of nausea brought on by the sight of all the dead bodies, this was a fascinating exhibit. For some reason, I had the idea that this was an art exhibition, but it’s really more a science exhibit on the topic of human anatomy. The show is divided into several sections: muscles and skeleton, circulatory system, digestive system, etc. and the dissections in each section serve to illustrate a certain system in the human body. Many of the dissections inventive in the way that they show the behaviour of certain muscle groups or organs, and the information shown with the exhibits gives clear and informative explanations.
The audio tour was a bit of a waste though, as it doesn’t really give any information that isn’t shown on the printed posters by the exhibits. There are “kids versions” of the audio explanations though. I only listened to the kid version of the “reproductive organs” exhibit description which basically boiled down to: “don’t giggle, we all have reproductive organs; this is a penis and it makes sperm; sex is a serious subject — ask your parents about it”. If that’s anything to go by (and it’s not a representative sample I’m sure), the kid’s audio tour isn’t worthwhile either.
Two of the sections were particularly fascinating. One section is all about the circulatory system. A process is used to fill all the veins and arteries of a body (or section of a body) with a bright red plastic, and then the flesh and bone is dissolved away. What’s left is a perfect 3-D representation of the circulatory system, suspended in liquid and displayed in a glass case. It’s amazingly creepy to see this ghostly image of an entire body in red filaments. The legs and arms and head are all there, but only in outline created by the underlying blood vessels. Some parts of the body like the legs and brain are densely represented due to the greater blood supply, while the stomach and is just a faint image. Very cool and unusual.
The other interesting section — behind a large warning sign asking visitors to ask themselves if they really want to see it before entering — is on embryology. A sequence of embyos and fetuses (all preserved using the same plastination technique) vividly demonstrated the miracle of nature that is human development. The warning sign also mentions that all of the embryos and fetuses died of natural causes, and in fact some of the deaths were due to disease or deformity, like spina bifida or conjoined twins.
All in all, a very intersting exhibit if you want to know more about how the human body is put together and how it all works. It’s an amazing machine. But skip the audio tour.