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Published: Thursday, 4/14/2005

The wondrous human body

MIND-boggling may best describe the impact of taking a look inside a discarded computer, digital camera, or mobile phone. Most of us only see a container for electronic wizardry that is unimaginably complex. The superficial view can devalue the wonder and conceal the true miracle of these devices.

The value of a look beneath the skin is one reason to praise an unusually explicit museum exhibition of the human body, which opened last Saturday at Cleveland's Great Lakes Science Center and will continue through Sept. 18.

Called "Body Worlds 2," the exhibition just arrived from a run in Los Angeles, where it enthralled more than 900,000 visitors to the California Science Center. A companion exhibition, "Body Worlds," is captivating crowds in Chicago.

The exhibitions show what's inside the human body. They use actual human corpses - skin stripped away, insides dissected, and exposed - to show what makes the body work.

Most visitors are getting their first look at a secret landscape previously accessible only to medical people. They typically express amazement at the complexity of muscle, tendon, bone, arteries, brain, nerves, and everything else that makes a human. Many had only the vaguest notion of what's inside. That's no surprise, considering the sorry state of school biology and health courses that deal so inadequately with human anatomy.

Granted, the corpses do look more like plastic models than real dead bodies. That's because the bodies, and organs in separate displays, have been treated with a technology called "plastination" that replaces some of their natural materials with soft plastic.

But these were once living, breathing human beings, and questions about bioethics were inevitable.

Body Worlds created controversy when it first opened in Europe, with clergy protesting that the corpses were posed and displayed in ways that disrespected the dead. In addition, there were unsettling legal and ethical questions, including doubts about whether all the corpses had been obtained legally, with proper consent to go on public display.

The exhibitions do display the corpses in poses from life - a basketball player dribbling, an archer flexing a bow, a skateboarder balancing. The purpose, however, is not disrespect, but to somehow distance the exhibition from death in ways that encourage visitors to participate, inspect, and marvel.

There is room on either side of the evolution-creationism divide to appreciate the wondrous and heretofore largely unappreciated frontier that lives within us all.

Legal questions also seem to be resolved, with all individuals in the current exhibitions having given consent for their bodies to be used for educational purposes. Even so, relatives of the deceased might still find the prospect unsettling. However, the absence of skin renders the bodies unrecognizable as their former selves.

Some of the exhibits are powerful health education tools that show the effects of preventable diseases like heart attacks and cancer; some folks who have viewed it say they will never smoke again. Many others walk out pledging to immediately undertake a healthier lifestyle.

Body Worlds does not abuse the dignity of the dead; it celebrates the miracle of life, and the human body. Its message echoes the words of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("What a piece of work is man!") and the writer of Psalm 123 ("I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made").



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