Wednesday, September 06, 2006


A few nights ago I attended the Body Worlds exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Body Worlds is a traveling exhibit of real human bodies and human organs that are preserved through a process called plastination. The exhibit was so popular that the museum extended their hours so they would be open 24-hours a day for the final weekend over Labor Day.

This exhibit was gruesome and raw. It was morbid but somehow life-affirming. Many of the exhibits were straight-forward and all were educational. There were healthy lungs and smoker's lungs, arthritic knee-joints, human hearts—one with an artificial valve, and whole circulatory systems. But there were also whole-body exhibits (primarily of men), which went above and beyond a strict representation of anatomical reality.

I was struck by a number of things. One is that somehow this process either cannot preserve body fat or the designers chose not to do so. Looking back and forth between the mostly overweight Houston crowd and the plastinated bodies I was struck by the disparity. The bodies seemed so small, so delicate and vulnerable. Houstonians, in contrast, are huge and hulking creatures. I couldn't stop imagining the deleterious effects of all of our excess fat on top of the delicate structures inside our bodies, our hearts, skeletons, tendons, and capillaries.

Another thing that ended up keeping me up until 1 in the morning was the question, What was it? Was it solely educational? Was it irreverent and/or degrading? Was it (gasp!) art? I'm not sure. Some of the exhibits, primarily the "Flayed Man" as I call him, went beyond a representation of reality into another, orthogonal realm. This man was holding his internal digestive system outside of his body, from tongue to colon, while the muscles and tendons that normally would be lying on top of his skeletal structure were flayed in multiple directions, pointed skyward, sideways, toward the ground-- all directed away from his body.

What was that? I'm still not sure.


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