Bodies: The Exhibition

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.

7 thoughts on “Bodies: The Exhibition”

  1. Oh, this dude is extremely popular all over Europe, my native Poland included. He and his dad were even to open a “plastinization” factory here (ironically, near the city of Oswiecim – Auschwitz), but then it turned out his Dad had worked there as a young man and had been hiding from international tribulals for the past 60 years, so naturally nothing came out of this. Both were brought down by publicity in the end…

  2. When I was in Munich spring ’01 I went to this exhibit. I have to admit that I was completely engrossed. It was wicked cool to see how many of them had black lungs, etc. It made me quit smoking. Not to mention the process of “plastination” was super awesome to any science geek.
    If it comes to your town… I highly recommend seeing it if you aren’t squeemish and have any interest in anatomy.

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  4. Enjoyed and enlightened by this exhibit. Took nearly 3 hours to view it all. One person dropped in a faint to the floor. My nose and throat burned and I could taste the formaldehyde and whatever other chemicals used to preserve these cadavers. I could smell them as well. My asthma acted up-when I mentioned this to one of the exhibit monitors, he also has been experiencing his asthma acting up. Just a shout out to those who are super sensitive to chemicals. This is a fact! Several hours later, my throat is still raw with the taste.

    Should I be real concerned? Anyone Else???

  5. I didn’t get an after taste at all… more like an after nightmare… This thing is cool. I highly recommend it.. and worth the 25 bucks. On the west coast the only way to see dead bodies is to hang out at the cemetaries and do a little diggin. I prefer hangin at Pier 17.

  6. ‘My nose and throat burned and I could taste the formaldehyde and whatever other chemicals used to preserve these cadavers.’

    Whilst I can sympathise, I think it is more with your imagination than with the reality of the exhibition. The technique used (‘plastination’) couldn’t be further from formaldehyde. If you can taste the cured polymers and your ‘nose and throat burned’ then you either have an unusually vivid imagination, or else your nose and throat burn similarly when encountering all sorts of everyday objects.

    The ‘chemicals’ to which you suspect some might be ‘super sensitive’ are what make up much of the modern world.

    I saw this exhibtion, or rather a precursor, in London about 4 years ago. It was one of the most amazing and enlightening encounters with humanity that I expect I will ever have. Whilst we inhabit supremely complex shells, from before our birth to the time of our death, we too-easily go through life blind to the physical marvels of which we are made. Whether of a scientific, religious or artistic bent it is hard not to be astonished and awe-struck by such an encounter (I mean in the sense of awe, not that of the trivial Ameri-teen ‘awesome’ (‘ossum’?)).

    Anyone who is afraid of, or shocked by, the thought of such an exhibition is afraid of, or shocked by, themselves: by their own body. They might be best advised to defer such learning until they have outgrown hangups and superstitions. On hte other hand, anyone who has open eyes and an open mind to one of the universes most subtle and rofound wonders could find the exhibition a delight.

  7. I went to see the Bodies exhibit in San Diego yesterday, and discovered that everything everyone says about it being an amazing and highly effective way to learn about our bodies is true. Yet for me, there was a additional side to the coin.

    I was interested to read David’s comment above, “Despite a slight but continuous sense of nausea brought on by the sight of all the dead bodies,,,”

    Both my (adult) daughter and I commented to ea other on the same sensation– a slight sense of nausea. For me, I believe it was not brought on by the viewing of cadavers, as I actually found them fascinating and in some moments quite beautiful. I think my nausea was brought on by a feeling of dissonance produced by the exhibit’s narrow scientific, fact oriented approach to its subject– detached one might say, from the interconencted nature of life.

    For example, along with the factual trivia written on walls of the exhibit and the explanatory cards, I would like to have seen what words poets might use to interpret the subjects, what metaphors might be evoked that more vividly connect our human experience of ourselves and our bodies to the rest of the world. This is a component that would have greatly enhanced the presentation, in my opinion. We all, even scientists are human, and this human, experiential, right-brained aspect was not balanced into the mix.

    I also think related music and song might have been effectively employed to broaden the attendees’ experience.

    A wonderful job by the exhibit’s designers, but I would have liked it to somehow evoke the consciousness that these bare facts are not all that we are. Even if one wants to stay away from “spritual” aspects, simply the human experience of having such a marvelous creation as… an ear, for example, how it’s like a conch shell, how it relates to other things in nature, or… how it feels to become aware of this marvelous design, to own it…etc. Or the scapula, how its sheen was like an oyster shell, pale and translucent, with light shining through it.

    As it was, my body was slightly sickened by the absence of that broader view, perhaps making its own statement to the whole shebang, that even though the left brain was thoroughly satisfied, the absence of the right side made my stomach say: “Can’t take this in… can’t stomach it!”

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