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Exhibit Review: Who Says Beauty is Only Skin Deep?

Museum of Science Springs For Controversial BodyWorlds 2

By Rosa Cao

BodyWorlds 2

Museum of Science

Through Jan. 7, 2007

Adult: $24, Student: $21

BodyWorlds 2, the travelling exhibition now showing at the Museum of Science, is not so much a world of bodies as ies as an erratically curated room or three of case studies, ranging from a man literally beside himself (me an’ my skeleton, strolling down the street), to a window into the complex digestive systems of a pair of hapless camels.

There are gems, like the baby goat defined only by its blood vessels — the rest of the body has been digested away — and what high definition those blood vessels give. Fine sprays of capillaries track every contour of the head and limbs, while major arteries and veins trace where organs, muscles and nerves would have rested. The same process has been applied to a human arm, showing a dense network of capillaries at our sensitive fingertips, condensing to larger vessels that run up the arm. The specimens in this section are displayed in blue velvet cases; spotlight illumination gives them a dramatic ruby glow.

Also engaging were the specimens of diseased organs: dessicated coal miners’ and smokers’ lungs, broken hearts, and tumor-ridden kidneys. During my visit, these provoked visceral “ews” from any number of on-lookers. Perhaps these, together with an up close and graphic display of an obese specimen, will encourage viewers to try to take better care of their bodies.

Some of the most heavily advertised specimens show flayed bodies arranged in dynamic poses; at the MoS these included the vivid but crudely posed “Ballet Dancer” and “Soccer Player” (Soccer players don’t shoot with their toes and arabesques should not involve crooked turned in feet or bent knees. A little homework here would have done wonders). Up close, the bodies look like nothing so much as educationally color-coded jerky.

Real muscles look like fresh steak: juicy, bulging, and shining with bodily fluids. Real organs pulsate. Real nerves stretch like spiderwebs. Plastination, a proprietary process by which liquid resins are infused into cells, replacing water, and then cured to solidity, does an excellent job of preserving more robust tissues. Nerves don’t fare so well: only the largest fibers survive, and those that do are often knotted or broken. Muscles survive much better, as do ligaments and tendons.

Semi-see-through cross-sections (lengthwise) of a body were fascinating, but only because they showed the superiority of non-invasive high resolution methods like MRIs over the anatomical methods of past centuries. More dramatic were the the blunt dissections that showed the squishy three-dimensional tetris of our interiors: fitting lungs, liver, stomach, and heart, the core of the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems in the couple of cubic feet afforded by the human torso requires some highly efficient packing. One man is shown simultaneously bending forward and backwards, as if split down the middle by a giant woodchopper.

Strangely, the spectacle of dismembered human bodies are anything but horrifying in this context. The bodies do not look dead, tortured, or brutally dissected, but rather, faintly bemused, with expressive eyebrows, wide innocent blue eyes (and yes, for the most part they are blue), and, incongruously, eyelashes. They bear a strong resemblance to each other, like a mutant branch of the human race, without skin or (with one notable exception) fat.

In this exhibit, pedagogy takes a backseat to visual whimsy, although anyone who actually took the time to read every plaque and listen to the audio tour would get a fairly systematic education in basic anatomy. As usual, the MoS has done a good job of choosing its exhibits to balance substantive information with crowd-pleasing entertainment.

One of the most detailed and fascinating parts of the show actually came from the MoS’s own collection, a series of preserved human embryos in tall cylinders of clear preservative. They range from the tiny – a five-week old embryo barely distinguishable from a curl of clipped fingernail – to a small but clearly mammalian 20-week-old.

Von Hagens exhibits have been controversial. The exhibitors go to great length to address concerns about the provenance of the bodies: don’t worry, the donors gave full informed consent. Signs throughout the exhibit breathlessly declare the genius of physician, anatomist, artist! Dr. Gunther von Hagens, and his “groundbreaking” and “unique” method of plastination. Such shameless self-promotion (eulogizing the man for history … although, unlike his works, the man is not yet dead) seems unncessary: the specimens on display should speak for themselves as well as the method that brought them to the display floor.

The Museum of Science is a non-profit institution, yet the Body Worlds franchise is very much about profit — to the tune of $40 million over the past seven years, transforming freely donated bodies into profit, from ticket sales to themed merchandise.

So if you have $21 dollars to spare for an excursion into corporal architecture ($16 in the evenings), there are probably worse ways of spending a few hours, especially when there’s the rest of the MoS to explore for free.