One cadaver at a time

Dissecting the Body Worlds 2 exhibit one cadaver at a time

Posted: 10/6/06

My sister was disgusted, my father appalled, my brother horrified, my mother numbed. I suppose you could say I was unsettled. But the whole thing just seemed sort of wrong.

A hundred dead bodies on display. I guess it's nothing we haven't seen before on TV war coverage or in action movies, but this was different. This was somehow less respectful to human life.

Now, I won't tell you whether or not you should go see Body Worlds 2 at the Boston Museum of Science, but I'll strongly urge you against it. Let me tell you why I think my $21 ($24 for non-students) was wasted.

Entering the Body Worlds exhibition hall, I was immediately hit by the sound of a false quiet; the kind of quiet in which hundreds of people are whispering. Altogether it's loud enough to be distracting, but no one person is talking above a whisper.

The walls are painted black and lined with faux-antique posters. The posters alternate between anatomical drawings from the Renaissance and quotes about death and dying by famous philosophers.

It seems the hush and the black and the quotes and the drawings are in respect for the dead, but I can't find anything else that is.

Down the center of the halls are glass display cases full of organs in various states of health. This is nothing we haven't seen before in science museums, although these, of course, are real and not the usual models. I don't object too much to these displays, although I don't see how the same effect couldn't be achieved with rubber and plastic and a bit of paint.

Somehow, the last things I noticed were the bodies. In every other corner of the room are these full, dead bodies standing and looking at you. Not even behind glass. Some of them have muscles and nerves, some don't. Some of them have faces and eyes, some don't. None of them have full skin.

Now, I can understand how even this has a scientific benefit. Visitors to the exhibit can see how muscles and nerves and organs and bones all interconnect inside the body. It's a lesson in anatomy. But frankly, I think the lesson could have been learned on one corpse, maybe two or three.

Walking further into the exhibit hall, there are more and more dead bodies standing and looking at you. Some are posed doing activities, such as ice skating or playing baseball or soccer. Although this is troubling, I can see where it might be beneficial to see how the human anatomy looks under the skin in various active positions.

But about a third of the way through, the exhibit runs out of borderline tasteful ways to display the human form.

Some are split down the middle, others in three places. One body has strips of skin and a partial face, giving a Picasso-like effect. Another has been rearranged as if pieces were popping out in large blocks like filing cabinet drawers. A third has been split into hundreds of pieces and suspended in air by wires as if it had exploded. And everything is highlighted by this eerie theatrical-grade lighting.

That's where I draw the line.

It's questionable whether people not going into medicine need to see real dead bodies to learn about anatomy. Won't a model do? But to use a dead human body for aesthetic purposes is as wrong as a baby in lingerie. Even a live baby.

There are dozens of accepted media and infinite numbers of alternative media in which an artist can work. In the former group, one might include paints, folded paper or clay. In the latter group, I would suggest empty food cans, broken colored glass or even plastic models of dead bodies.

I might even go so far as to question the scientific worth of the exhibit itself. There was little information available about the anatomy of the subjects and what was there was written in a tone suggesting a proud artist describing his work, not a scientist eager to inform.

Perhaps those that paid an additional $4 for the audio tour got the full educational picture. After all, the Body Worlds franchise currently has exhibits in Vancouver and St. Paul as well as the one in Boston. The tour has included another 25 major world cities, being seen by nearly 20 million people.

And 20 million paying customers can't be wrong, can they? Not when they've made the Body Worlds franchise the most profitable science exhibit in the world. Or could this possibly be due to the extensive advertising of a smart businessman and the morbid curiosity that comes with human nature? Hey, they got my money.

Ethan Rosenberg, a sophomore in the College of Fine Arts, is a weekly columnist for The Daily Free Press. He can be reached at