I was a middle schooler in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry when my mother told me she bought tickets for an exhibit of dead bodies… Not really something a twelve-year-old, or anyone for that matter, expects to hear.
As we entered the BODY WORLDS exhibit through a dark hallway, I expected some creepy, mad-scientist, haunted house sort of stuff.
What I actually saw was something completely different.
On a case to my left there was a figure called “The Swordsman”, stripped of its skin and fat, left with its organs, muscle, and bone. That may still sound like that creepy, mad-scientist, haunted house image, but seeing it in person was beautiful and miraculous.
I spent about an hour and a half in the exhibit learning about how blood flows through our bodies, what a fetus looks like at every stage of development, and how we digest food. The lectures from my biology class came to life and finally stuck. At the same time, it was just really amazing to look at.
The cadavers come from people who donate their bodies to this project. The founder of the international exhibition, Gunther von Hagens, asserts full consent and extensive documentation of using the bodies. The body parts are then preserved through Plastination, a process developed by von Hagens. Using polymer chemistry, they replace the water and fat in the bodies with plastics that harden even a single nerve without leaving a smell. The bodies and body parts can be arranged in creative and educational ways depending on the purpose of the display.
As the website says, the purpose of the entire exhibit is to inform viewers to make better decisions for their health and to encourage them to learn about anatomy and physiology.
I’m not sure how much I got from the health aspect at the time, but I definitely was captured by the body so much so that this experience is one of the reasons I want to go into medicine. The exhibit made a wonder that is generally only accessible to physicians accessible to the world, without the accompanying stress, smells, and mess.
Not everyone who finds it fascinating has to make a career out of it though. Your relation to the exhibit can turn out to be something more personal and emotional. I learned how to appreciate my body and the work it does during a time when I started getting exposed to negative commentary about my and other women’s bodies. This exhibit is a force to combat body-shaming because it essentially helps you say, “Hey, look how amazing this body is, what it’s capable of doing, and I own it. It’s mine.”
However, the biggest influence BODY WORLDS had on me was letting me see how creative science was. It displayed a lot of the same facts I learned in class but turned it into art. They managed to make the gross cadaver into something beautiful, and I found a lesson in that.
This was important to me because I am both a poet and someone who studies science. BODY WORLDS taught me not just that it was okay to do both, but that the two can mesh together. Poetry finds beauty in the mundane, as does science. I incorporate science in my poems and make vivid stories when I study for my science classes.
The exhibit is international, and I encourage everyone to find the nearest one. Who knows what you’ll find inside you from staring at the insides of others?