Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Is It Art or is it Gross Anatomy?

The Skin Man
Twenty years ago I used to live in Washington D.C. and one of my favorite haunts was the Walter Reed Medical Museum. I don't even know if it still exists. Among other things it had very graphic displays of reconstructed faces after they'd been mutilated in various wars, the leg of a Civil War general who ordered a medic to preserve what was left of it after it had been severed by a cannon ball, the bloated leg of someone who had died of elephantiasis, lots of other diseased, abnormal and normal body parts in jars, the bullet that killed Lincoln, and what I believe was the world's largest collection of human embryos. Obviously it was not a museum suitable for everyone. Then again, I'm not suitable for everyone since the only thing I found gross in gross anatomy was the smell of formaldehyde.

I thought about this when I went this weekend to Portland to see Body Worlds, a special exhibit at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). It's got dozens of bodies and body parts that have undergone a process called plastination. How to describe it? Corpses have been stripped of their skin, plastic has been injected into their muscles and other remaining tissues and then posed in amazing and stunning positions.

The exhibit has been surrounded by controversy. Is it ethical to display bodies--especially still anatomically correct ones--in a museum? OMSI and Body World officials say that it's all been done for educational purposes, to get people interested in anatomy and to show people what happens if you smoke, drink or partake of other unhealthy lifestyle choices. None of it, they say, was done for prurient purposes.

And are the plastinates--as the preserved bodies are called--art? The poses they're in are striking. The first case you encounter at the OMSI exhibit has a man holding his skin that has been peeled off his well muscled body. When I saw it I let out an audible "Woah!" As I went through the exhibit, I said "Woah" more times that I've ever said in a single afternoon . . . except for the time that I was on an ill tempered horse, but I'll save that story for a future blog.

My take on the controversy? Since all the bodies were donated by people who knew what was in store for them in the after life, is it any worse than having fifteen minutes of fame by being a contestant on Survivor or Are You Smarter than A Fifth Grader?

Frankly, what disturbed me most was that there weren't any bodies posed in positions we're all more likely to find ourselves in on a daily basis. They had a skate boarder in the middle of a flip, his male organs a'fly'n, a hurdler in mid hurdle with brain slices coming out of his skull and a fellow balancing on three balls while holding all his internal organs in the air. Where was the couch potato with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other, or a blogger hunched over a computer? Apparently the plastination process removes not only all the body's liquids, but the fat, too, so I imagine some of these folks may look better in death than they did in life. Still, I think I'm only volunteering as an organ donor. No everlasting fame for me.'s Medical Cartoons


Body Worlds Web Site


Anonymous said...

The Walter Reed museum still exists.

escort girls cyprus said...

i visit it once!