December 28, 2007

Bodies in Framingham: Dissecting Ourselves

LL and I attended Bodies: The Exhibition in Framingham. The exhibit has been somewhat controversial, I didn't find the exhibit itself to be disrespectful or particularly exploitative. Intense, certainly, and understandably too much so for some. These are, after all, dead bodies and body parts. On the other hand, the opportunity to see the real thing and the detail that embodies is worthwhile for those who don't have an emotional reaction. Personally, I've seen both models of the intricacies of human anatomy and the real thing as well, but never like this. The exhibit makes clear how everything works, what it looks like (sans the gooeyness of a dissection), and how much can go wrong with it all.

By their nature, many of the displays are quite dramatic. Seeing a human body split down the middle and turned about so that the two halves face one another is bound to have an impact, after all. It's not every day we get so direct an image of what's inside of our own bodies. Seeing the preserved bodies posed in ways that demonstrate what's going on when we're engaged in activities such as sports demonstrates starkly and beautifully what's going on when we do these things. Moreover, the various dissected specimens provide a glimpse of the tiny details, from the bewildering intricacy of the circulatory system to the gross and meaty musculature. One of the things learned from the exhibit, frankly, is that we all look a lot like pastrami inside under the right circumstances. Various displays also demonstrate what cancer looks like, the damage done by atherosclerosis, and the injuries caused by excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption. We may be works of art, but we're awfully delicate ones.

At the end of the exhibition, there's the opportunity to get a close-up look at a few internal organs to the point that one can handle the plasticized specimens. The polymer used to replace the tissue is surprisingly light and waxy to the touch. I closely examined hepatic ducts, for instance. How often does one get the chance to get so up-close with what is essentially the inside of one's own body? While popular media and superstition have made such things a topic of awe to an extent, placing upon them everything from prohibition to fear, this aspect of the exhibition strips that away in a particularly effective manner. We can hold our heart in our hand and inspect the very things necessary for us to live without the interference of our innate fear of death.

Overall, the exhibit was part science and part art. It's a collection of contradictions, beautiful and macabre. It's the reality of ourselves, and therefore it's going to be too much for some of us. Bodies brings us face-to-face with life and death in frank terms, and that requires a certain degree of maturity and detachment even as the viewer finds himself staring right into the folds of an ultimately realistic human brain. Personally, I found nothing about the exhibit to be exploitive or disrespectful. There was nothing of a circus atmosphere to the displays. I'd certainly recommend a visit to those who feel that they can handle it. It's not for everyone, but it's a real eye-opener for the right sort of person.

Note: the photos used in this entry are screen captures from the videos on the Bodies website. Photography is prohibited inside the exhibit.

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