Thursday, November 09, 2006

Real Live Dead People

I saw the Body Worlds exhibit with Fiona's class, and 3 other grade 8 classes today. It was very interesting, emotionally powerful and scientifically fascinating.

Part 1: the Real Live Dead People
It took 90 minutes to walk through the exhibit, and I would have taken longer but we had to go up to the Omnimax for the Human Body movie. The exhibit is nicely set up so you can move from one thing to another and return to re-check a part if a subsequent display makes you want another look back ("so that's where the pancreas is - let me go back and look at the pancreas in the display case"). There are bones and organs and nerves and blood vessels in small parts and whole human beings. The whole people and parts are arranged/posed for dramatic effect and to illustrate how the parts work and fit together in the body. There are healthy and diseased parts (including a cross section of a 300 pound man, body fat intact), even artificial parts. One female body has an artifical knee, elbow and ankle. The exhibit is arranged from the easiest to view (bones and muscles) to the most difficult (embryos and fetuses).

I was surprised by a few things - mostly size and proportion:
  • The lungs are much smaller that I thought they would be, and the thoracic cavity takes up much less of the torso than the abdominal cavity does. This makes sense, even when I look at myself in the mirror, but I always picture lungs as really big when they fill up with air. Flatten your hand. The outline of your lung is about that size if not a little smaller.
  • The aorta and vena cava are gigantic! I pictured the big blood vessels like outdoor power cords, but they are closer to garden hoses, not quite, but almost. You could put your thumb inside your aorta.
  • Human muscles look like meat. Okay. They are meat. Still, it's really something when you see it.
  • The bones of the inner ear (hammer, anvil and stirrup) could all fit on your baby finger nail with room to spare. They are impossibly tiny.
  • Kneecaps are not much bigger than pop bottle caps.
  • The bones of the feet are as delicate as those of the hands.
  • Blood vessels are everywhere.
  • The small intestine is quite alarming when it is unravelled.
  • Fetuses make me cry.
By now you will know for sure if you would like to see this show. I like all of this, so I loved it. The people whose bodies or parts are on display gave their permission (in the case of the babies it was the parents who gave permission, I suppose). You can walk all around everything and see it from every angle. It is absolutely spectacular. Some of the poses are sensationalistic, but at the same time they do demonstrate the body's amazing capacity to for physical performance. They are all doing things that people do.

Part 2: Watching the Watchers
The teachers were aware that the trip was controversial. They offered to excuse any students who chose not to attend (it would not affect their marks) and welcomed all parents who wished to attend. Not many parents attended. All but one student in Fi's class chose to attend.

While we were in the gallery, there were grade 10 students, grade 8s and a bunch of elementary school kids (probably grade 4 and 5). There were also adults who weren't part of a school group. I followed 3 nurses for a while. Every piece or person prompted patient stories. It was fun to overhear some of them. I chatted with quite a few people at the displays. Lots of people were talking to other people about what they were seeing and what it meant. The displays of disease (arthritis, leukemia, hemmoragic stroke, polycystic kidney disease) prompted discussion of illnesses of friends and family members. The teenagers were respectful and thoughful, if quick to bypass some displays. I saw two girls about 15, say to two similar-aged boys, "Look, a tumor of the testes." But they weren't giggling or grossing out. They were interested. Nobody seemed to be concerned by the penises and vaginas and anuses on display. I guess when you are looking at someone's liver you don't mind looking at sex organs too. It felt like we all knew we were looking at real people. We knew it was a special experience. Mostly what I felt myself and around me were curiosity, amazement and awe.

Contrast that with the Omnimax experience. The Science World Lady is reciting the rules (turn off your cell phones, don't take pictures, bla bla bla, no laser pointers) as laser pointer dots dance around her head on the screen behind her. Even so, the movie was good enough that the kids settled down and paid attention. They were delightfully grossed out by the churning stomach contents, especially when the bile squirted in, and by the zit-pop scene.

I'm glad I went on this trip with the school. I look forward to a second viewing with Alex's school later this month. I bet grade 10s and 11s will be fun to watch too, along with the real, live, dead people.

question: do you think you would like to see this exhibit? or if you did already, what do you think?

mompoet - real live live person

1 comment:

Kristene said...

The human body is fascinating. If I were in Vancouver I would most definitely see it. I'm not sure why this exhibit is controversial? Are we afraid of ourselves?

Jealous that you got to go!