High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, August 08, 2005

An Unbalanced Mind

I'm having trainwreck experience about Gunther Von Hagen's Human Body Worlds.

When J came out to the old homestead for brunch Friday morning, he had mentioned that there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding von Hagen and the exhibit, which is currently running at the Museum of Science and Industry. I'd really heard nothing about the man, his work, or the show (MSI has quite the crack marketing staff these days), and I didn't seek out any information before we headed out to see it on Saturday.

I so completely eschewed advance information and the MSI's website was so complicit in information repulsion that I didn't note that: (a) We could've purchased tickets in advance online, thus saving us about 40 minutes of standing in line before we ever got into the bloody place; (b) though the Museum closes at 5:30 PM (as I'd confirmed on Friday when we were wondering whether or not to try to go then), the exhibit is open until 9:00 PM. Thanks to the cavalcade of ignorance, it was not the smoothest visit ever, though the 40-minute wait did afford ample time for changing our dinner reservations (for which we were late anyway).

Our tickets were for entry at 5:30 PM. We got in line around 5:20 and probably didn't enter the exhibit until at least 5:45. This was all rather disheartening, as there were still far too many people in the exhibit at a time to really enjoy it. I don't know what the museum's plan is for timing the ticket sales, but it seems to be pretty deeply flawed. We ended up having to rush through the last room, having spent just shy of two hours getting to that point.

The exhibit is divided into anatomical systems: locomotive, nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive, plus a kind of gallery of awe---bodies in motion, human bodies and elements thereof placed in their jaw-dropping context. Most accurately, the final gallery really contains what could have been a gallery of the reproductive system and human ontogeny/development, but I'll get back to that later.

The basic design of the exhibit is glass cases placed centrally with full-body specimens placed around the edges. The casestend to be about 15 feet long and probably 4.5 feet high, which, as A pointed out, is not optimal for the height-challenged. They are designed for two lines of visitors to view simultaneously from each side, which is absolutely necessary in terms of human-flow issues. However, the specimens are not always oriented in an equal opportunity way, so it was possible to have chosen poorly in terms of viewing side for an entire case.

The whole-body specimens are assembled on very low platforms and most have no barriers between the specimen and the visitor. Actually, I should have taken better note of which were glassed in and which were not---off the top of my head, I can only think of the "Chess player" and the "Pregnant Woman Reclining." The former, possibly, because of the removable props, the latter, likely, because it seems to be the one that evokes the strongest reaction. They're placed well away from the walls in most cases, so it's possible to walk completely around each. Although many people didn't seem to be taking advantage of this (seemingly content to view each from the "front"), the ability to view them in the round was essential as most of the perspectives on each dissection were carried out from head to toe and front to back.

One serious oddity (and flaw, to my mind) regarding the physical MSI set up, is the fact that the reclining pregnant figure, along with several embryonic and fetal sepcimens, are in a section that is curtained off from the rest of the exhibit. It also merits its own ostentatiously placed guard. I have no idea if it was originally envisioned in this way or if there is a story behind the separation, but it's disconcernting, moving from a number of case specimens progressing from very early embryonic stages (the first of which is 99% uterus, leading to a hilarious [to me] discussion between two visitors about how you can see the tiny fingers even that early [fallopian tubes, dearies, look it up]), up through later fetal development. Also in this corner are two "closets" full of hanging sections, including shoulder-to-shoulder sagittal sections and front-to-back coronal sections. Their placement seems to have been given little thought.

Overall, though, the arrangements of the figures are stunning. The first two full-body specimens were relatively simple dissections revealing the depth and complexity of the muscular arrangement of the appendicular skeleton, skillfully done with beautiful attention to detail, but for me and A, nothing particularly new. However, the third one took a few minutes to sink in: It was an assembled skeleton, with ligaments, but no other flesh, reaching out toward the figure in front of it, which was the musculacture of the same individual, arranged in the same pose.

At this point, I've dissected or supervised the dissection of probably 30 human cadavers and 20 or so different primate species. I can't describe how profound the effect of that first figure was for me. In learning and teaching anatomy (and the two are difficult to disentangle---we are truly, truly unique), there is a physical emphasis on geography and a theoretical emphasis on system. In the lab, you master the landmarks of a region from every conceivable view, reducing the body to manageable regions. In the lecture hall, you then try to ignore the distance between physical structures and try to master how an entire system works together. To have the two entire systems juxtaposed in correct geography was both one of the biggest intellectual "Ah ha!" moments I can recall having in recent memory, and a profoundly moving experience. As P.Z. Myers so eloquently put it I am beautiful on the inside.

The vast majority of the full-body specimens are equally anatomically informative and artistically challenging. The "Chess Player" dissection brought me back to my very first day in the human morphology lab as a student. The supervisor had prepared a similar laminectomy dissection (removal of the spines of the vertebrae and the top arch of the spinal canal to reveal the spinal cord and nerves emerging at each level). Each dissection group came through for an individual tour. My group consisted of three anthropology students and one med student who lasted about 2 seconds before face planting. Med student mockage aside, however, this again was a fantastic piece, bringing the processes of intellect and motion together in a way that's often missing from hands-on dissection classes. For example, at Pritzker, the brains of the cadavers had been removed for use in the dedicated neuroanatomy class, divorcing movement from thought.

The thoroughness of representation and the depth of perspective contained in the specimens is astounding, and my fingers ache to think of the painstaking work. I have prepared a few detailed dissections in my day, taking the skull down to view the inner ear from the top, removing the buccal surface of the mandible to view tooth roots and innveration, etc., and it can be crazymaking. It seems as if every conceivable view is represented somewhere, either in the cases or the full-body specimens. The juxtaposition of diseased and healthy specimens alongside those showing medical intervention (artifical joints, valves, arterial stents, etc.) is also highly effective. I couldn't help being completely blown away, both as a scientist and consumer of art, by the arterial specimens in which the arteries are filled with red polymer and the rest of the flesh and bone is dissolved away, leaving the three-dimensional structure rendered in the bold lines of the main vessels tapering into the incredibly delicate capillaries at the skin's surface.

Amid the cases and specimens, there were floor-to-ceiling banners with classical anatomical drawings and other artwork regarding anatomical research, and some containing text reflecting on death, the body, and being human by scientists, artists, philosophers, etc. Some of the drawings are amusingly reflective of their period (e.g., a muscular diagram of a young man standing near, for some reason, a hippopotamus), but to my mind, they really do add to what von Hagen seems to be trying to do.

For all the time humanity has spent glorifying its own form and striving to set itself apart as some kind of miracle, we've spent equal time trying to grasp our own role as part of the natural order. In a week filled with "Will the Real, Itelligent-Design-Endorsing Republicans Please Stand Up?" it was restful to be surrounded by hope from then and now. The specimens themselves, as well as the banners and artwork served as a reminder that there are and have always been people constructing forceful, persuasive images of and ideas about the authentic, natural glory of being human.

At the end of the galleries (uh, before the mandatory exhibit-themed store, of course) is a guest book and a blow-up of a completed donation form (with personal information removed) from someone who determined to donate his body as the result of seeing the exhibit. I didn't spend much time at the guest book after seeing one entry that simply said "It was kinda sick," and another delivering the shocking news that this "isn't really for kids or toddlers." Actually, I would dispute that, having been fascinated by anatomy from a very young age, but unless someone chloroformed you and your toddler and dropped you off in the middle of the gallery, there's no excuse at all for that kind of complaint. There are ample images about the exhibit and the ticket lobby has clips from it running on televisions.

Since I started writing this, I searched around a bit to get a sense for what controversies have surrounded it. I'm really surprised by the vehemence of reactions and the wide variety of objections being raised. Many take issue with von Hagen's claim that his techniques and specimens are art (something he seems to be downplaying these days), relegating him, at most, to the status of craftsman (a distinction and demotion, I note, peculiar to Westerners who view art as a recreational excess, rather than something that exists in the middle of real life).

At least two authors of this type of criticism seem to have been so determined to sneer that they missed relatively straightforward scientific and artistic messages inherent in some of the pieces. For example, one writer was intensely critical of the "gimmick" of "Rearing Horse with Rider," in which the human figure holds his own brain in one hand and his mount's in the other. The viewer can approach closely enough to get the full effect of the horse's immensity and just as it's sinking in, the eye is drawn to the human brain positively dwarfing the horse's.

Others insist that the so-called artistic placement obscures the anatomical information, citing, for example, the "Drawer Man" and the figure carrying his own skin like a coat. The former wasn't included in this exhibit, so I can't comment, but I thought that the volume of the skin relative to the individual's musculature was both visually striking and informative.One blogger seemed to think that the main point of the exhibit was to emphasize the similarity of human flesh to food. Although I can't agree that von Hagen is doing something so simplistic, I can't help but wonder if that's not a message that needs sending, having experienced many "well what does it look like?" "well, kind of like chicken or pork" "ew! That's disgusting! We don't eat muscle" moments live and in person and had a student share with me the Girl Scouts exclaiming "ew! They look like animals" regarding whole fryers.

Probably the largest category of criticism comes from those who feel that the exhibit denigrates humans by defiling corpses. Many deny that any information is conveyed and, furthermore, that von Hagen has no desire to convey information, only to shock. He is called unbalanced, pornographic, psychotic, cold, calculating, opportunistic. Scientist, knowledge, and information all frequently appear in sarcastic quotemarks.

Other critics shift the focus from von Hagen and question the motives of those who donate, in either pitying, contemptuous, or disbelieving tones. The specimen of the pregnant woman figures prominently in these critiques, demanding pity for her husband and loved ones and insistence that she could not have known what von Hagen had in mind. I'm not trying to pull rank, but I think it's safe to say that I've put more thought into death and rituals of death than the average person. The tone of this school of criticism should not surprise me, but it does rankle. They implications range from the insistence that individuals either have no right to determine what should happen to them after death, or that the idea of "informed consent" is a complete fallacy regarding one's own physical remains. It's particularly grating that the shrillest, most absolutist of these are devoid of any real consideration or appreciation for the plethora of different ways in which human groups treat the dead.

In my cultural anthropology class, I try to introduce the idea of the "Tao of Humanity" by drawing on Herodotus's story about King Darius bringing Greeks and Indians together to talk about their rituals for the dead. The point is not that we eat or bury them, but that there is no human group that simply ignores the fact that death represents an individual and collective loss. Bioarchaeologists have gone along for the culture-historical, processual, post-processual ride in trying to determine whether mortuary archaeology is telling us about the living, the dead, or neither. To pretend that those of us living in the Western World today have some kind of clarity on the subject is sheer hubris.

That said, there are some serious allegations that all of the specimens were not obtained via voluntary, informed consent. There have been reports in the German media that some of the corpses were victims of Chinese execution. The evidence does not seem to be especially robust that this is the case, but it's difficult to find a treatment of it that contains any facts, let alone dispassionate reporting regarding them.

Whatever the nature or orientation of their issues with the exhibit, every critic seems convinced that von Hagen has nothing more in mind than cheap thrills and exploitation. It is very difficult for me to reconcile these simplistic condemnation with the richness of my own experience of it (and the apparent richness of the experience not just of my companions, but of the vast majority of the visitors there at the same time we were). I feel like I absorbed very little of what was available for the taking, and it's somewhat depressing that so many seem to have been able to reduce it to so little.

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Blogger Mesk said...

Beautifully written post. I also enjoyed the exhibit, both from an artistic perspective and also from the knowledge of just how difficult and time-consuming those amazingly detailed dissections would have been.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Thank you for the kind words. Although I certainly take many of PZ's points over at Pharyngula I feel fortunate that I got as much out of the exhibit as I did. I have been thinking about the "showmanship" aspects of the exhibit as well as about my own most negative experience, which was how grossly oversold it was by Chicago's MSI. A friend in the museum world has told me that von Hagen dictates dreadful terms for the exhibit, which in part motivates the overselling. In that sense, the commercialism and "P.T. Barnum" approach are troubling, but I still found it a richer experience than PZ evidently did.

11:37 AM  

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