*I do have a disclaimer on this post. It may be disturbing. If you want to know what's happening with me, this is the place to read about it. However, this post is a little more ... unedited than most. If you don't want to read it, don't. I won't care (because I probably won't know). If you do want to read it, but are bothered later, then tough. You were warned.*
As I've complained to many of you already, I've got a presentation next Thursday for my class. Our topic is ageism and how stereotypes of the elderly affect their health. That part is interesting, and not the topic of my post (although I'd love to have a conversation about it sometime - maybe the next post). Anyway, one of our group members found out about an exhibit at the Science Centre called the "Human Aging Machine". It works best on 8-12 year olds, but we decided to go to the Science Centre anyway to check it out. As a result, we were around for the Body Worlds exhibit. My two group members and another friend from school were really excited to see it, so the four of us trooped off to experience this exhibit.
Being the worldly, knowledgeable audience that you are, I'm sure you've heard various things about the exhibit, or if you live in Toronto, have seen the various advertisements that plaster the walls of our beloved TTC. To explain as minimally as I can, the exhibit is comprised of a number of human body parts, both healthy and diseased, so that people can learn basic anatomy as well as dysfunctions associated with different disorders. The key in that last sentence is "human"; the body parts are real, dissected from humans who have died as a result of natural causes or accidents and preserved, through a process called "plastination", into a rubberised form for exhibition.
As a budding scientist, I have always had a fascination with the human body. I've often wondered "what does the body look like when it does x?" or "imagine all the things, from cognitive to physiological, that have to occur in sequence in order for y to happen". I will admit to that fascination. And perhaps Gunter von Hagens was trying to express that same fascination. I don't know. In any case, I entered the exhibit not really knowing what to expect. I was not exactly excited, but I resolved to keep an open mind.
The exhibit begins in a long hallway with a series of exposes on different body parts. Let's use the spine as an example (as it's the first one I remember seeing). You are shown a spine, from the brain stem right down to the last vertebra in your back. It is explained via placards what the body part's function is. Parts that connect (e.g., nerves) are sometimes shown to further illustrate what the body parts can do. Then, you are shown said body part in pathology; for the spine, scoliosis was the disorder that they chose to explain. You are shown a scoliotic spine, and after you have absorbed this information you are free to move to the next slide. Once in awhile, they will present you with "summaries"; dissections of the body at a certain cross-section. You see a full cross-section, from fat to bone to muscle to nerve, and how they all interact. (I must admit, that part was pretty interesting).
One thing that I loved was listening to the people around me. There were many people who were either (a) well-versed in anatomy; (b) aspiring to be involved in the medical process; or (c) simply better learners than their neighbours. It was great to hear all the different explanations around me, the interested questions, the thoughtful answers. I was glad to hear that there were people out there who were really engaging with the environment.
Then you proceed to the main exhibit room, which spans two floors. Here are more human body parts, constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. They show more parts, both without and with pathology. You see more integrated body forms, so you get to see not just the stomach but the whole digestive system. And you get to see whole bodies, contorted to different positions.
These bodies have been plastinated, and they have been deconstructed and reconstructed in particular ways. You get to see how someone who sits down is putting stress on the nerves and muscles when he crosses one leg over the other. You see a ski jumper in perfect V form and how his muscles burst with their strength as they are contracted to their full power.
You may not notice at first, but it starts to creep up on you: These people have eyes. Some have fake eyelashes. The eyes are shown open (no eyelids present), they really underlined how lifeless the bodies were compared to what they were. In each case, the eyes stared into the distance, lifeless, lonely, blank. Although they're not whole (because their organs have been removed, to elucidate one aspect of the system, or cut up to show the process at different levels), they're still people. They moved once like this, although naturally. They weren't cemented into one place. They weren't forced into an eternal position.
You then proceed to the lower level, where they have more of the same: body parts, internal organs. Athletes in various poses, to illustrate the amazing contortions of the body to perform a basic movement. Animals. And in the far corner, close to the end of the exhibit, was the section where I lost it.
I should have seen the warning signs. I should have known it was coming. I was warned, and forgot. The embryos outside the glass, with one for each week of development from two weeks to ten (not discernibly human, but still). The embryos on the other side of the glass, from about three months to full-term. And in the centre, a pregnant woman, who agreed to donate her body after she learned that she was expecting, knowing that her illness (cancer) might not let her see the birth of her child.
I think I may be affected more than others by death, but I'm told I'm not the only one who was disturbed by this exhibit. But I can't explain what this part did to me. It was horrifying, degrading, dehumanising. It was death on a pedestal. The whole exhibit was death on a pedestal. The sadness I felt, for the woman who was almost a mother, for the child who never felt a raindrop or took a breath of fresh air or cried, for the women who so desperately want to be mothers but who never could. I cried for them all, right there in the middle of the exhibit. I cried for the athletes whose lives were cut short, for the children who only lived to be five or six, and for the rest of the donors, whose fate after death was to be exposed for public consumption. I felt guilty for having violated their privacy in this way.
I quietly turned away. For me, the exhibit had ended. I couldn't see anymore, couldn't appreciate the beauty of the human body or its functionality or its compactness. I subtly made my way to the end of the exhibit and waited for my friends to arrive. Afterwards, we lived our lives as we would usually, and I was able to get through it. But I can't help feeling that sadness.
I wonder how long it will take me to shake it off.