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An exhibit shows what we are: BODY WORLDS

April 27, 2013
By C. Paul Martin, M.D. , Marshall Independent

The Science Museum of Minnesota is currently presenting BODY WORLDS and The Cycle of Life, an anatomical exhibit of human bodies shown in many and unique ways for educational purposes. I saw this exhibit some years ago in London and offer these comments about the exhibit as an aid to those who may be interested in it.

Depictions of the human body have been part of our cultural history since early man drew his physiognomy onto cave walls. The Egyptians showed the human body both as godlike and realistic, and the Greeks and Romans created accurate representationalistic images of humans as seen in the classical statues and friezes familiar to us in museums.

The drawings and paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the statues and fresco paintings of Michelangelo created the Renaissance human art form we view as ideal and beautiful. However, these artisans and others were limited in their ability to study the human body because of the proscriptions directed by contemporary cultural forces, notably religious and governmental influences.

It wasn't until Vesalius published his masterwork on the human body in 1543 that the true form of the human body was accurately depicted. Additional experiences in the next three hundred years continued the study of anatomy as cultural restrictions eased.

In the mid-19th century, the "resurrectionists," Burke and Hare among others, aided Dr. Knox of Edinburgh in his anatomical studies of procured bodies. Yet it wasn't until some years later that accurate illustrations of dissections of the human body became available. My older edition of Grey's Anatomy was published in 1847, and its remarkable figures of human anatomy are no less impressive than those in modern 21st century medical textbooks.

Three-dimensional exhibits of human figures were first made popular by Madame (Marie) Tussaud, initially in Paris in the time of the French Revolution and then in London in 1835. Her remarkable wax museum is a popular tourist site near Baker Street.

Several anatomical museums were and continue to be integral parts of European medical schools, having beginnings in the early 19th century. The present museums at Guy's Hospital and the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel contain both wax models of human dissections and systems in addition to preserved anatomical specimens and intact skeletons. (The skeleton of the "Elephant Man" is preserved at the Royal London Hospital.)

The 20th century and beyond have brought refined images of the human body, especially the interior and microscopic aspects, mainly because of scientific and technological progress. Computer-enhanced diagnostic procedures have added to the increased skill of artists, and chemical inventions have led to more sophisticated bodily images and preservation. The latest of these discoveries is featured in BODY WORLDS.

About 20 years ago a German physician interested in anatomy, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, perfected a process, long studied by him and others, to preserve and present the intact human body for educational and artistic purposes. To this end, he invented Plastination, "a patented method of anatomical preservation [which] replaces bodily fluids and fat in donor specimens with reactive fluid plastics. Before the plastics harden, Dr. von Hagens - who draws inspiration from the anatomical drawings of the Renaissance - fixes the specimens into dynamic lifelike poses." This group of intact bodies and tissue specimens is the basis for the exhibit BODY WORLDS which is presently showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, continuing to May 5.

This exhibit may not be suitable or appropriate for everyone. I reviewed this exhibit when it came to Bethnal Green, an area of London's East End, since it was not welcomed to any of the prestigious London museums. Some conflict and protests occurred. Most of the exhibit is well presented; some of the objects may make one feel uncomfortable; a few can be shocking. BODY WORLDS will be of value to those viewers who have an educated and mature interest in learning about the human body and some of the diseases which can afflict it.

As it has throughout history, the human body will continue to interest and amaze us!



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