Last weekend Andrew, Melissa, Sherry, and I headed to TO for the latest Body Worlds exhibit to come to town. None of us had ever seen it before, but I’d heard good things. Plus, none of us are squeamish, and we’re all unabashed nerds, so bring on the flayed corpses! πŸ™‚ (Sherry’s account.)

Because the feature of this series is the heart, and, by association, the vascular system, there were a number of exhibits where the vascular system was the focus of the plastination, either alone (the heart, a rooster, a lamb, etc.) or in conjunction with other body parts (a full skeleton with circulatory system, the circulatory system of the head, internal organs, etc.)


My biggest curiosity was how they managed to plastinate tiny capillaries — I figured the biggest challenge would be pushing the polymer through the veins and arteries with enough pressure to get the solution all the way into the vessels, but at the same time not so much pressure as to rupture the teeny ones. In short, the answer is using a vacuum. Ahh, of course.

The vascular features were definitely my favourites. Vivid red, incredibly intricate, and very beautiful. Plus it’s amazing just how vascular various parts of our bodies are, like the face.

I couldn’t get into the full displayed bodies quite as much, though they were certainly very interesting and educational in terms of seeing where things were, how they worked, etc. They put some external anatomical landmark parts back on — nipples, navels, etc. — but they were synthetic and looked a bit silly in most cases.

Despite knowing the bodies were real (and it was very interesting listening in to people as we moved through the exhibit, since it was quite obvious a number of children did not know that), there wasn’t really a sense of “hey, that’s one of us” with the full displayed bodies (or plastinates, as they are so conveniently called to separate them from mere corpses or whatnot).

There was actually more of a sense of “realness” with the cross-sections. They had thin-sliced parts of various bodies throughout the exhibit, along with individual plastinated organs or systems (digestive, reproductive, etc.) Like just how rotted a gangrenous “smoker’s leg” got before amputation mid-thigh. Or just how invaded by cancer a breast was before (presumably) the person died (i.e. the tumour had displaced almost all the breast tissue).

One thing that really stuck with me was just how ugly and nasty the “bad things” are that can happen to a human body — tumours, aneurysms, etc. Discoloured, misshapen, there’s really no question that such things don’t “belong” in our pretty pink meat neighbourhoods.

I consider myself pretty well educated on what the body looks like, where things are, and how they work, but it was still intriguing and somewhat surprising to see various real parts on display. How small and wormy-looking an appendix is (and that something that little and inconsequential could kill you…). How small an empty bladder is. How small the uterus is (I am pretty sure the one we saw had never been “used” for a pregnancy). How closely all the organs of the digestive cavity fit together.

The others didn’t go into the fetus side room of the exhibit, but I checked it out. There was a series of early development fetuses in tubes — around 5 to 8 weeks of gestation. Most of them were attached to tissue and whatnot, so were hard to see. It was amazing (and somehow a bit uncomfortable) to see the fully-formed toes on the 8-week fetus.

And somehow there was more of a human connection there than with the older fetuses around the outside of the exhibit, which were from around 17 to 30 weeks’ gestation, as I recall. I did notice, too, that several women near or in the exhibit looked distinctly uncomfortable or unhappy. One wonders about their stories.

In a previous incarnation of Body Worlds, there have been female plastinates who were pregnant at time of death, and who agreed to donate both their bodies and the fetus’ if it couldn’t be saved. One woman was apparently diagnosed with a terminal illness while pregnant, and both died when the fetus was at about eight months’ gestation. None of these displays were included this time, possibly due to having garnered considerable controversy in the past, or possibly just to show something new.

For some of the interactive part, a gent from the morgue was brought up into the light, as it were, to have some interaction with the walking, talking set and answer questions. He was also accompanied by several plastinated organs, which could be handled — heart, liver, and kidney — as well as a brain thin-slice.

I was a bit surprised to hear people asking him what each organ they were holding was: a) they’re grown adults, that level of ignorance is a bit scary, and b) this feature was over half way through the exhibit, so they’d have already seen multiple examples of each organ already, with markers and descriptions, some separated and some in situ.

Despite there being any number of whole and partial plastinated bodies to observe, the one that bothered me the most was a thin-slice (vertical, ventral-dorsal) of an obese man. Clearly not in good health before he died, he was well-padded with subcutaneous fat, appeared to have lung tumours, and had had a pacemaker. And honestly, if you stepped back a bit and squinted, he looked rather a lot like a really big piece of uncooked bacon.

One of the most amazing parts of the exhibit, right at the end, was a full giraffe. The team had plastinated and thin-sliced it, then assembled it as a “standing” display, each piece of the thin slice hanging a few inches apart, so you could see inside all the way up. The result of thousands of hours of work, but a favourite of ours, and of many, judging by the reactions.

They do include animals to a degree in the exhibit. There was the aforementioned rooster and lamb vascular systems, and a number of animal hearts for comparison purposes to our own — cat, chicken, bull, etc. And in a previous exhibit one of the plastinates had been riding a plastinated horse (a fairly well-known image at this point).

Overall, totally worth the cost of admission (even with the incredibly slow process to get in and get parked). Quite suitable for kids (didn’t see anyone there who seemed grossed out or freaked out), and a great educational tool.

Of course, these are bodies, and they are naked (REALLY naked) πŸ™‚ so there are genitals and whatnot as well. But, of course, minus skin, like the rest of the bodies, so they’re a bit less than the whole. And the last word anyone (normal) would use to describe any part of the exhibit is “sexual”. (Though I hear they are working on showing a couple in coitus for a future exhibition.)

That said, I have a feeling that the kinds of parents who’d take their kids to one of these exhibits are probably pretty okay with their kids seeing the human form in all its variants and glories.

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