Friday, July 23, 2010

The Anatomy Class

While we were in Denver, we visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  They were presenting an exhibit (it closed July 18) called Body Worlds - the story of the heart, which we visited.  Let's start with the short summary from the museum's page:
Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a German scientist, developed a plastination technique in 1977 that preserves the human body in motion. The anatomical exhibitions by von Hagens showcase the muscular structure of the human body, and have been exhibited in such far-flung locales as Singapore and Spain.
Click the next link for details on the plastination process, in as much detail as you want.  In summary, the plastination process removes water and fats from the tissues of deceased animals, including humans, and replaces them with polymers, which preserves them indefinitely from decay.  In color.  The Egyptians never dreamed of embalming like this.  The Body Worlds exhibits (this is the second one) take human bodies, and organs, which have been plastinated, and display them in motion, showing internal organs, muscles and sinews - in short, everything but the skin, which they normally remove for display.  And the full-sized display figures (the plastinates) are amazing - posed as in extreme athletic feats, like throwing a javelin, or jumping on skis

Human bodies?  Yes.  You can will your body to the Institute for Plastination, to be preserved in this way and used for scientific education.  You can choose to be anonymous, or not.  Because the entire bodies are plastinated, organs and joints can be sectioned to display tumors or other illnesses. 

Make no mistake, I was impressed.  The plastinate displays are astounding.  The details of organs, joints, the vascular system - all in details that even doctors rarely see.  You learn more about the human body in this exhibit than you do in most introductory anatomy classes.

And yet - it gave me the creeps.  It didn't upset my stomach - my stomach doesn't upset easily - but there were signs all through the exhibit to notify the staff if anybody in your party felt dizzy or faint, so I guess some people do get queasy.  But really - when you die, is this what you want done with your carcass?  To have it mounted in a museum display, down the hall from the stuffed antelopes?  I have very mixed feelings about the process.  I'm normally all for scientific education, I'm all for investigation and teaching; and the displays of individual organs and joints (all preserved through plastination and all originally human) were fascinating.  But the plastinate displays had a whiff of P. T. Barnum about them that disturbed me, and still does.

Death is the great mystery that separates us from animals, who don't know that they will die.  It seems to me that it should be treated with more dignity than this.


  1. If you make it to Philadelphia, try The Mutter Museum. Skulls and other really odd material are on exhibit.

  2. I wonder how "primitive" man viewed bloody bodies. Is our squeamishness somehow evidence of some unhealthy separation, of an insulation from the real? Were pain and pleasure aspects of the holy apprehension of higher, truer states of being?

    Are we tampering with something inviolable as we dissect and manipulate our bodies?

    My revulsion with the gory and ghastly seems a primitive, immature emotion, which might be eviscerated through training, hardening, armoring. Is physicians' trademark cynicism and indifference to pain a gift, or a curse?

  3. Linkmeister, we were in Philadelphia last summer, but we didn't get to the Mutter Museum, we went to the Univ. of Pennsylvania Anthropology Museum, which was pretty interesting but didn't have anything like what Wikipedia describes...