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Volume III, Number 220 January 2003

Anatomy: Art, Science, and Politics

Paul Corrigan

What is it about the human body that makes people so uncomfortable? The reasons seem endless. Only a few amongst us have transcended this discomfort. Leonardo da Vinci immediately comes to mind. He graced us with both his knowledge and his appreciation of the human body. On a recent trip to London, I was fortunate to see the works of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael side by side in the Queen's Museum adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Despite my appreciation of these masters, it was another exhibition, "Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," that left me totally fascinated, challenging my attitude about life, death and politics. Controversy has surrounded the Body Worlds installation. The displays in the exhibition comprise the remains of real human beings.

The exhibition includes full-body and cross-section displays. The specimens are permanently preserved through a process called plastination, which involves saturating the body tissue with plastics. By preserving the tissue, plastination allows the anatomical display of isolated systems or of full body poses in any number of human actions. Describing the installation as futuristic would not do it justice. Professor Günther von Hagens, who produced the exhibit, brings to life Gray's Anatomy with the artistic merit of the Bolshoi Ballet. The artistic appeal of the exhibit was so visceral that I was uncomfortable with my appreciation. Emotionally, I found it much easier to be fascinated with the actual anatomy than with the artistic presentation of dead people, their organs, and systems. For example, the cardiovascular system, dyed bright red and fully extracted from the body of origin, was stunning in its beauty and utility. The beauty was combined with facts that continually surprised me: "If all of the blood vessels were laid end to end, they would go around the equator twice." But the display of human remains frozen in action—the chess player, the swimmer, the basketball player, the man on horseback—left me with the sense that the specimens were skinned alive. I wanted to know their identities and more about their lives than what forensic science could discern. I wanted to know what led them to donate their bodies, but I knew that the exhibition was right never to betray the anonymity of the donors.

The audio tour helped give the exhibit a scientific comfort. Presenting the various systems of the body in clinical terms, it emphasized how healthy systems interacted and explained deviations caused by common diseases. I paid special attention to the parts of the body that have caused my family and me pain over the years. The tiny bones of the inner ear associated with my son's hearing loss. A sample of the aneurysm that killed my mother, displayed with the aorta, which looked to have the girth and strength of a garden hose. The ureter that blocked my kidney, requiring it to be rebuilt like the carburetor in a 1966 Dodge Dart. A cyst on an ovary, similar to the one my wife and I worried might steal her ability to bear children. Lungs damaged by smoking that would have killed my mother if the aneurysm had not. We need to know what's inside us. Don't we?

The exhibition has received both wide praise and condemnation. Recent changes in British law saved it from threats of banning. The exhibit found a home, but its Brick Avenue location in London's East End indicated that a traditional society that sells the monarchy like pop stars was not altogether comfortable with the display of dead bodies. Most of the condemnation spoke to individual fears that the exhibit was proof that modern society dehumanizes mankind. Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent for The Guardian, wrote: "It is the golden rule for cinema and circuses, and now the august world of museums has got the message—gore sells. The higher the body count the bigger the box office." An anonymous poster to the Internet was even more dismayed: "This display objectifies humans and the more we let children see the objectification of humans, the more it corrodes their respect for human life." Appreciation of art, and anatomy, are in the eyes of the beholder. Alas, most of the condemnation has come from those who have refused to view the exhibit. We fear what we do not understand.

The exhibit was unabashed in its presentation but did take care to protect the sensibilities of viewers. The exhibitors isolated the most sensitive subjects to a separate wing away from the main exhibition room. Here we found displays of the stages of fetal development and fetal abnormalities. My support for an individual woman's right to control her reproduction remained strong after the tour, but the human form at relatively early stages of development challenges both conventional wisdom and the politics of reproduction. Two victims of a car accident, a young mother and a baby eight months in the womb, literally left me breathless.

My tour of Body Worlds reminded me of the metaphysical aspect of space exploration. Discovery made me more reflective of the meaning of life, not less. Left to explore the organs of the body and the skeletal, nervous, reproductive, cardiovascular, and digestive systems, in remarkable isolation, I came away even more fascinated with the body's ability to work in unison. Life, even explained, remains a mystery.