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The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful at the Science Museum

At the opening reception for the Science Museum's Body World exhibit. (Photos by Robert Carey.)

Body Worlds

The Body Worlds exhibit currently at the Science Museum is about as good a presentation of human anatomy and physiology as you’re going to get short of maybe enrolling in medical school and dissecting a body.

And like the body you’d dissect in medical school, these are real bodies, donated by the living owners specifically for this scientific application, involving preservation by an innovative plasticizing technique.

There’s more display and information here than you can take in on a single visit, but you will see and learn enough to make it a memorable event and ultimately possibly life-changing by inspiring behavior modification of some practices or habits relative to personal health.

Some things you already know only too well, to do and not do. Like exercise and decent nutrition, in the one case, and smoking and eating junk food and excessive eating or drinking, in the other. But observation of a smoker’s lung and lung section juxtaposed to a non-smoker’s—black and shriveled versus pink and efflorescent—could conceivably cause abandoning the disgusting and expensive habit. Or even more horrifying, the cross-section of the smoker’s leg.

(On the other hand, one of a group of high-school kids going through the show when I went through—no doubt a young smoker, so possibly a little disturbed by the exhibit, but not about to admit it, and anxious to show his manly toughness before his peers—dismissed the implied lesson with the cliché: “You gotta die sometime.” The peers did not seem especially impressed with his intelligence or his bravado.)

Or the cirrhotic liver versus healthy liver. Again—like the smoker’s lungs versus the non-smoker’s—shrunken and gray-black versus pink and vibrant fleshy. This is about overimbibing alcohol.

Or arthritic and osteoporitic bones and joints versus healthy bones and joints. This is about getting regular exercise and maintaining weight control.

But the exhibit is not predominantly about ill health but the opposite. There are full-scale bones and muscles figures in action poses as a runner, a swordfighter, male and female flamenco dancers, and male and female ballet dancers, sometimes with muscle masses splayed out like ribbons in the breeze—apparently the better to show the various muscle layers and clusters, but also show the bones the muscles would otherwise hide—sometimes in normal place, wrapped around and attached at both ends to bones. There’s even a full-scale singer figure. All healthy, athletic activities. Many ways to be vital.

Many ways to be ill, too—diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, cancers of several body systems—but in each case explaining what current science understands about how to prevent the illness.

An Alzheimer’s patient’s brain, showing the meanders of gray matter not tightly packed as normal and healthy, but spaced, separated, due to general brain matter shrinkage due to wholesale brain cell destruction in conjunction with the disease. Accompanying explanatory material says that until recently it was thought that to age necessarily meant to lose brain flexibility, the ability to learn new things, and stay vital. Now we know, we retain and maintain brain flexibility precisely by learning new things. Keeping on learning. The brain is a muscle. It requires exercise.

Two more usual sort of art projects accompany the plasticized bodies and body parts exhibit. A photo exhibit displaying family food purchases for a given week for randomly chosen families—so this is not science, but just as interesting—from countries around the world. Lots of junk and processed food on the American table, but other places, other families, maybe just as bad or worse. Amazing cost differentials, too, which would have had something to do with the cost of food in different countries, but probably more with the real food (cheap) versus junk and processed food (expensive) differential.

And a sculptural project using casts of ordinary people—not models, not professional athletes, not movie stars—just their torsos, naked, by way of challenging stereotype notions as to what constitutes beauty. Beauty is “not a contest,” the artist, Larry Kirkwood, says. It resides “within each body, not in comparison to someone else [who] has a totally different set of genetics.”

You can be part of this exhibit. Not this very exhibit, but future exhibits of the same kind. You can donate your body to be used in whole or in part for the project. Forms are available.

The exhibit continues at the Science Museum through September 29.

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