Yesterday I went to the Museum of Science and Industry and saw the "Body Worlds" exhibit. It is an amazing display that uses over 200 actual, preserved human bodies to reveal the inner anatomy of the human body.
Apparently the bodies are preserved, in great form and detail, using a process called "plastination". You can see muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in exquisite detail. Not only did the exhibit feature normal structures, but it also contained several specimens ravaged by disease, such as a cirrhotic liver, a cancerous lung, even examples of prosthetic hip and knee joints. The bodies were often arranged in imaginative poses and there was even one display of a person on top of a horse.
As a medical student, these displays were fascinating because they gave me a chance to see some expert dissections of the human body and to appreciate the gross anatomy of several disease processes (e.g. the cirrhotic liver) and also the sheer beauty of our inner anatomy. We always read, for example, that the brain gets 20% of the blood pumped out by the heart, but when you can actually see the tiniest of vessels preserved all over the surface of the brain, you can also picture it.
But I am somewhat troubled by the commercialization of the exhibit. It is one thing to study the body in a gross anatomy lab as a medical student and it is quite another thing to have an exhibit open to the public that you are charging people admission for (on top of the general admission to the museum). I think it diminishes some of the dignity of those who donated their bodies to science in the first place. I've often thought of gross anatomy as a necessary contingency for medical students in order to gain first-hand knowledge of how the body is put together. Is it really necessary for the general public? Is there a compelling need for the public to get this kind of education?
I don't know the answer to that question, but it isn't easy for me to answer. Intellectually I found the exhibit fascinating (I spent over an hour going through it) but emotionally there is a morbidness and a sense of disrespect to the bodies that doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps this is a Muslim sensibility, since Muslims believe in a physical and spiritual resurrection whereas Christians predominantly believe in a spiritual resurrection.
The exhibit runs through September 5th and those in medicine (except maybe pathologists) will find it well worth their time...