I recently visited the Bodies exhibit at Atlantic Station which features anatomical presentations of preserved human corpses. They kind of ease you in. The exhibit opens tamely with a segmented human skull in a plexiglass box. The next room has a skeleton and a series of other bones. That’s when I turned, after staring at a few pieces of vertebrae, to see a cadaver with the skin peeled away; skeletal muscle fully exposed, gripping a basketball in an athletic stance, staring back. Something about knowing it was real, that this had once been a living person, made it different than any previous attempt to teach me anatomy. I was shocked and honestly a little scared. I had to force myself to come closer, some part of me fully expecting him to burst into violent life. It’s strange, but I think it may be the first time I’d seen a human corpse in person. It took a moment for my morbid fascination to make room for scientific curiosity, but something about the combination of those two feelings formulated the sensation of awe. It was almost as if I felt obligated to look closely, as a matter of respect, to the people who provided their bodies. It was incredible to look at the intricate musculature laid bare before me and know that something similar and just as complex was inside me, taken utterly for granted. Natural selection simply hadn’t required that degree of self awareness.
As we continued through the exhibit a friend of mine repeated several times that he would like to donate his body to something like this when he dies. When I pressed him further he said it was appealing to be useful even after he died, to be a part of someone else’s learning, but he also alluded to the desire to be preserved so thoroughly. Wanting to be preserved after death had never exactly made sense to me. I’d always seen it, frankly, as clinging to an existence that has certainly fled through an arrangement of matter you happen to identify with. Considering this again, while standing in front of another corpse presented as art indicated an alternative motivation. The human body is simply beautiful and while I still don’t personally care if I am preserved, I understand why someone might think it a shame to let themselves rot.
I think that beauty is seated in the functional complexity of the body and staring fascinated at humble displays of the nervous and circulatory systems I had moments near worship. I study biology, but this reminded me why. Imagining or viewing an image of the human anatomy pales in comparison to the visceral understanding of seeing the real thing, knowing every nerve and artery was meticulously divorced from the surrounding flesh. Equally striking and immeasurably more disturbing was the exhibit on development. Separated by a wall of curtains and caked in thorough disclaimers lay a series of plexiglass cylinders illustrating the progression by weeks of embryo to infant. Another friend couldn’t help herself from blurting out something about magic every few seconds and I couldn’t blame her. To me it was strange how soon we started looking like a person, it quickly became apparent how politicized the issue of abortion has become. I had more or less unthinkingly supported the doctrine of “pro-choice” without having any real understanding of what a fetus even looked like. I wouldn’t say I altered my stance, but looking at a twenty-week-old fetus the issue suddenly seemed more ethically charged than it had a moment before.
The exhibit closed with a cadaver posed to be waving goodbye and a statement to the effect that it’s easy to go about our daily life, but critical to take time to ponder our origins. In fact, I found my mind making subtle adjustments to mental models. Organs I would have imagined to be bigger were smaller, structures I would have thought to be simpler were more intricate. Everything varied slightly, nothing was the same. Scientifically inclined or not I fell victim to subtle inaccuracy and assumption. More abstractly, we’ve designed a standardized system of education based on imperfect idealized models of reality and assumed that this is somehow more effective or efficient than tangible experience. I think we all have a fragment of faulty understanding that we can only correct by personally examining reality. But please — don’t take my word for it.
Posted in cadaver
Tagged abortion, anatomy, biology, bodies, Body World, bone, cadaver, circulatory, corpse, curiosity, development, education, ethic, exhibit, muscle, museum, nervous, nervous system, organ, preservation, preserve, science
This week in class, we read an excerpt from one of Philip Gourevitch’s gripping book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families about the genocide in Rwanda. His testimony of visiting the Nyarubuye Church after the massacre initiated a bigger discussion of what is ethically acceptable when it comes to using actual human remains to bear testimony of atrocities to commemorate events in the past, and also to assure that nobody ever forgets or questions the authenticity of this history. Andrea shared with us her family’s images from a visit to Auschwitz, a site that remains not only a ruin of a painful past, but also provides actual evidence against Holocaust deniers today. It is hard to argue against such tangible facts on the ground. Then a friend of mine, Petter Linde, who also happens to be an archaeologist, sent me an interesting link to an article by BBC News, that reveals a similar discussion about the ethics of photographing and displaying images of the dead from World War 1, entitled Fallen Soldiers: Is it right to take images of bodies?
Is it acceptable to show images like this from WW1, or is it ethically so problematic that the benefits of bearing witness of these horrific events do not compensate for the humiliation and lack of sensitivity and respect for the dead?
Documenting the dead – to create a record, to support testimonies of atrocities, to communicate what most of us are unable to put into words – has long been business as usual for journalists. But we see that today this is becoming increasingly questioned by both the public and by authorities. I understand the visceral reaction to photos of dead people, and I feel sympathy for those who feel that this is in some way undignified or at least questionable. But at the same time we must then also ask ourselves where to draw the line? Is it not equally, if not more problematic, to publish images of living people in conflicts – those who may still be suffering, or whose lives may be at risk because of the exposure. Is it not more objectionable to capture the images of starving children or wounded soldiers, than of dead ones? Of course, this immediately gets very complicated and probably we must resort to an uncommitted “it depends”. And yet, without testimonies like this, would the world community care, even less take action?
The image of the naked Phan Thi Kim Phuc in 1972 raised awareness among the American public about the reality on the ground in Vietnam and the effects of the use of napalm bombing for thousands of civilians.
Without images like that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc the American public may have felt differently about the Vietnam war.
But the question remains: how far should we go to use the bodies of the dead to tell our stories? Do their voices to some extent still speak through the materiality of their bodies, or, are we simply exploiting the raw effect these gruesome images have to make our own points and further our own agendas?
Liv Nilsson Stutz
There is much controversy about how the bodies of the dead should be treated. In the past, during times of great plagues, those who suffered and died from the plagued had their dead bodies piled on one another in the streets. Some people had the lucky job of picking up the dead bodies and dragging them out of the cities in order to “clean” the streets. Nowadays, that would be considered cruel and disrespectful. We have established laws that regulate what we can and cannot do to a dead body, such as dissection, burying one in a residential place, and having sexual intercourse with one. However, most of the laws that are set in place are done so in order to protect emotions of the remaining family member’s or make them feel better based on what they think a dead body actually represents or contains. Growing up in a society that practices such laws made it difficult for me to understand how other cultures could have opposing views of the dead body and treat them as mere objects.
For example, the Chinese sold the plastinated bodies to the United States to be put on display in museums of New York City and Atlanta in “Bodies…The Exhibition” to be viewed by paying customers. These bodies were taken from chinese prisons without the prior consent of the deceased or their family members. The skin on their bodies were peeled back, and the bodies were arranged in comical “poses.
What? Is there no wrong doing done here because the benefits (income) that can be made by such an exhibit is so significant? Or is there no attachment because these people are not Americans, and since we do not have any cultural or familial commonalities with these people, should our laws not apply to bodies brought into the country? Is this not cruel and brutal and inhumane? This is outrageous and disgusting.
You can read more about this at:
picture from: http://ourtakeonfreedom.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/bodies-exhibit/