The latest traveling exhibit at Connecticut Science Center in Hartford titled “Real Bodies” shows in full detail the inner workings of humans.
At first glance, the exhibit looks quite similar to the “Bodies Revealed” show that the center exhibited in 2013 and 2014 that also put real human bodies on display. But rather than being purely scientific, the show’s wall text is philosophical, at times even poetic, ruminations on what it means to be a human.
“The full body specimens and the individual organs tell an amazing story and it’s easy to set them up in a systematic way,” says Tom Zaller, president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, Inc., which produced the traveling show. “But what does our body mean to us? The story is bigger than just the actual physical and chemical reactions that take place in the body. I thought it was spiritual in nature.”
The exhibit even has a section called “Love,” though that concept is not scientifically quantifiable. Zaller uses the segment on the reproductive system to approach the subject.
“Most of the time when humans reproduce, it’s because they’re choosing to. There is a physical and emotional connection you share with somebody,” Zaller says. “I don’t know about animals but having love to share is an important and huge part of life.”
Let’s walk through all the categories of the exhibit.
The skeletal system, whole and in parts, is exhibited in antique wood-and-glass display cases. We learn that human dissection used to be a crime, because souls needed their bodies in the afterlife. But curious people did it anyway on the sly, including Leonardo da Vinci, who wanted to perfect his knowledge of anatomy. When it was discovered that dissecting bodies led to medical discoveries, the taboo was lifted.
The respiratory system is the focus of this bay of the exhibit. It features a full body, lungs, a larynx, a trachea. One of the lungs is healthy, and another, black and bloated, is the lung of a cigarette smoker. A wall of box fans pushes air into the exhibit bay, illustrating the power of air moving back and forth. Near the fans is a fact: The volume of air you breathe each day can fill approximately seven hot air balloons.
To show the muscular system, one human specimen has been taken apart, and his skeleton holds hands with his muscular structure. The shock of that sight is soothed by the text next to it:
“Every move we make defines us. With no effort, the muscles move us through the day and never say a word. Their language is the unspoken reality of now. … We are the actors, puppet and puppeteer, in this little play called life.”
The digestive system is the bodily function people think of most often, because it’s about food.
“We can take the air we breathe for granted because breathing is an automatic response,” the text reads, “hunger, however, requires our action.”
A wall diagram tells the story of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. That prehistoric artist was also fixated on eating, as he depicted a man hunting for food.
The circulatory system gives rhythm to our bodily functions, with the beating of the heart and blood flowing through veins. This spectacular segment features specimens of a full human system of arteries and capillaries, as well as a poem:
“Rhythm is breath and step. It defines the day, the seasons, the year. We create and honor the rhythms of celebration: mealtime, TGIF, harvests, birth, marriage, death.”
The nervous system turns humans from living creatures to thinking creatures, who can formulate ideas and feel pain. Alexandra Jones, a docent who studies physical therapy at UConn, describes a full specimen of the brain and nerves:
“It’s amazing to think that everything that makes you you is right here, your emotions, the pain you feel, tickles, hugs, all that goes through the nervous system.”
An unforgettable part of the exhibit is a re-creation of an ossuary — a storage place for corpses — modeled after the Paris catacombs, where 6 million people are buried. The arrangements of skulls and bones (all artificial) illustrate one of the myriad ways people have coped with death. Koreans turned remains into beads. In Ghana, dead are buried in fantasy coffins. And in New Orleans, funerals feature jazz music.
Specimens of the reproductive system — male and female — are in the gallery with a large red sculpture of a heart. Visitors are asked to write a love note and attach it to the sculpture with tiny locks that are handed out. The wall text muses on love:
“Alone, we are a heap of bone and blood … but here, wrapped in the mystery of this connection, hunger and poverty fall away – for here, we are truly known.”
The door of this bay has a warning label, as some may not want to see it. Embryonic and fetal specimens show the growth of babies inside bodies, at five, six, seven, eight, nine, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 30 weeks. A poem honors the process of gestation and birth:
“In mother’s womb, embryo grows into fetus before pushing the world’s door open to play the game again, continuing traditions or creating new ones.”
Is immortality possible? Some scientists think it is. This segment is about medical breakthroughs that extend and enhance life. A fascinating structure shows real anatomical specimens, sliced razor-thin and arranged in the shape of a human to illustrate the possibilities of contemporary science. But still, there is a humanistic element to the science, as the wall reads:
“It is not lightly that we say Take Care.”
ORIGINS OF THE BODIES
Since “real body” exhibits began making the rounds of museums worldwide years ago, some observers have questioned where the bodies come from, and sinister theories have been floated.
In response, Imagine Exhibitions prepared a statement, in the form of an FAQ PDF posted on the Connecticut Science Center website: “The specimens in ‘Real Bodies The Exhibition’ are provided by Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co. Ltd, one of the world’s leading centers of plastination research and innovation. The specimens are all unclaimed bodies that have been donated by the relevant authorities to medical universities in China. The specimens featured in the exhibition were donated legally, were never prisoners of any kind, showed no signs of trauma or injury, were free of infectious disease and died of natural causes.”
In an interview, Zaller added to that statement. “I have been doing these exhibits since 2003. ... [The origins have] been investigated and scrutinized I don’t know how many different times, but there never has been any evidence of any wrongdoing or anything illegal of any kind ever. That’s been vetted again and again and again, by medical examiners, by independent forensic anthropologists.”
He concluded: “There are no skeletons in our closet.”
REAL BODIES is at Connecticut Science Center, 250 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford, until June 30. Entrance is included with general admission.; $16.95 for kids, $23.95 for adults; $21.95 for 65 and older; free for members. ctsciencecenter.org.
Susan Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.