Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bodies - the exhibition

New york is like a city of museums . There are quite a few of them here : Museum of natural history, arts museum, financial museum, architectural museum ... A fortnight back I decided to visit one of them, a rather unusual one - The 'Bodies' museum. Back home, people call museums as 'Setha College' (Dead college). This museum is a 'Setha College' in its literal sense. Yes, it houses real dead bodies - some 20 of them.

The aim of this museum is to explain the human body and its anatomy. They've displayed the real organs of the different systems of our body. The bodies are preserved by a process called 'polymer preservation'. Different organs have been separated according to the different systems and arranged as such. The photo to the left is the backside view of bodies in sitting posture. The brain, spinal chord, shoulder blades and the muscles are all clearly visible.

The museum starts with the skeletal system. The first items of display are the different joints in our body - the hips, knees and so on. Bones of different parts - skull, joints, fingers etc along with a whole skeleton are there on display. There is section on the functions of cartilage - the soft tissue like covering over our bones. They have separated the cartilage from the bones of a body, preserved the entire cartilage exactly in the shape of the skeleton. The skeleton shaped cartilage and the corresponding skeleton are holding hands as though playing together. It is a really wonderful and innovative display. I'm just not able to put it in proper words. The cartilage and the skeleton are supposed to be from the same body. They've carefully separated the cartilage from the skeleton, shaped it the same way as the skeleton and have arranged both of them together. Excellent innovation.

The museum then takes us through the other systems like nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, respiratory system and so on. Under the respiratory system section, they've displayed the lungs of a chain-smoker. They are fully coated with tar and totally black in colour. There is also the specimen of a healthy lung by its side. And just after this exhibit, they've appealed to people to quit smoking. A huge glass container has been placed asking people to drop in their cigarette packets symbolizing their resolve to quit smoking. A very good effort, I should say.

There is also a separate section displaying foetuses. These are specimens collected during miscarriages. They've placed a warning at the entrance to this section, asking people who are sensitive to these things to skip this section. But this is a really wonderful section. It is here that we can fully appreciate the wonders of God's creation, the complexity of the evolutionary process. There is a long row of specimens showing the development of a human embryos starting from a couple of weeks after fertilization. The first specimen is of an embryo that is just a few days old. It is very small, not bigger than our finger nails and looks just like a small piece of cotton, translucent and very fragile. But even in that we're able to identify the shape of the baby. Then this embryo grows in size and by the end of 12 weeks, it is still has the same cotton-like appearance, but has clearly distinguishable hands, legs, head and other organs. It is no bigger than our thumb. Then there is this series showing the development of the spinal chord in an embryo. Within a few weeks of development, the spinal chord starts developing and appear like numerous tiny pin-heads. It is just really wonderful.

There are cross sections of most of the body parts. There is one specimen showing the cross section of the entire body. The entire body has been cut into small slices in a horizontal fashion and the pieces are spaced slightly apart, so that you can see the cross-section of the each body part along with their respective positions in the human body. The head alone was cut in a vertical fashion to show the brain clearly. The photo to the right is of a body split vertically through the center. You can notice the lungs, heart, stomach, intestine etc. This I feel is a very good depiction of our body.

Whenever I tell people that I visited this museum, they give a kind of shocked and disgusted reaction - probably the effect of seeing so many horror movies, deaths in movies, TV etc. In fact, I feel that even the photos of the museum do not give a very comfortable feeling. But it is so very different when experience first-hand. The organs have been drained of traces of blood and have been hardened. The most unrealistic exhibits are those of the circulatory system. So actually they've lost some of their realistic look or feel. The entire network of arteries and veins has been carefully extracted from the body and is arranged exactly in the shape of a human body. But when you look at it, it just looks like being made from coconut fibre dipped in red paint or ink. I somehow feel that this is a minus point. But this will make people who are more sensitive to bodies, feel more comfortable. I noticed specimens of all important body systems, but I didn't see any explicit explanation or specimen of the optical system. Most of the full-body specimens as in the photo to the right had eyes in them, but no specific section on the eyes. Probably they felt that it is just too much to have a cross section of the eyes.

And finally about the source of these bodies: All these specimens are supposed to have been obtained through the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in China. It looks like the 'Made in china' tag will follow us even after death. China has really pervaded all sphere of life, from birth till even after death.