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Body Worlds & The Story of the Heart is currently visiting the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and when I heard it was close by I knew I “had” to go.
Body Worlds are a set of traveling exhibitions that feature real human bodies and body parts that have been preserved. The preservation process is called Plastination and was developed by Gunther von Hagens when he was working at the University of Heidelberg. There is another Body Worlds exhibit occurring now in North America called Body Worlds & The Brain, in Calgary, Alberta. Canada. There are also exhibitions in Europe and Asia.
Why did I “have” to go? There are two components of my personality that are deeply ingrained: I’m very interested in understanding how things work. (I remember clearly when I was five years old asking my mom if I could take a clock apart. I had to see what was making things move.) I also have a highly addictive personality. (A runner? Addictive? Say it isn’t so!) Put these two things together, in a runner that can’t seem to get over some injuries and you have a guy that has spent HOURS AND HOURS on the internet looking at anatomy images, obsessing about what might be going wrong and why, reading blogs, reading papers, asking questions of my docs and PTs…….. I knew this was an opportunity I might not get again. So with a little trepidation, I decided to go.
I wasn’t totally sure how I was going to react. On the one hand, if I felt so inclined, I wanted to be able to stay a long time. On the other hand, if I got in there and got creeped out, I wanted the flexibility to leave immediately. That challenged a bit the various possibilities on when to go and how to fit it into my schedule. It turns out my wife was leaving on a trip this weekend and I saw the perfect opportunity: I dropped her off at the airport which gave me the rest of the day, sans commitments, to attend the exhibit – for as much or as little as I wanted.
Overall I have to say it was totally fascinating. It was so cool to be able to actually see these structures that we talk about so much as injured runners: The IT Band. The various tendons from the stirrup muscles that wrap around the inside and outside edges of the foot and attach underneath. The menisci of the knee and the ligaments that hold the knee together. The Achilles Tendon and the big space that exists between it and the tibia/fibula.
One really neat thing they did was pose a number of the bodies in real-life activities: Someone throwing a javelin. A woman doing a back somersault on a balance beam. Two hockey players involved in a collision. One really incredible display was of two bodies: A figure skating pair with the man holding up the woman in a one-arm fashion like we see in pairs competition.
There are a couple of other things that really struck me – and it took a while for these to develop in my brain as I went through the exhibit. One is how very small many of these structures are. I have this image of wide open spaces in the body – especially when it comes to the chest. When you see the actual body you get a sense for just how crammed together everything is. Some of the tendons of the lower leg – things that have a mental image in my mind of being not tiny but not huge – look very small and frail. The major branches of the nervous system look like thick string. Surgeons must have quite the difficult job. Second, it was amazing how everything is placed in a pretty small space. They had one display that sounds like it would have been more difficult to observe than it was: The body was standing in a relaxed, neutral pose. Some parts of the limbs had “cylinders” of tissue going all the way out to the skin, while other parts of the limb had significant portions of tissue removed down to the bone . It demonstrated very very well the small space all these structures are contained in. I tend to think of the different sub-systems as occupying the space individually: Skeleton. Blood vessels. Nervous system. Muscular system. Etc. Then when you realize they’re all occupying simultaneously the small volume of space we take up it’s quite incredible.
As I entered the exhibit I became nervous on another level: There happened to be a number of small children in front of me that were very excited, jumping around, making all kinds of noise, etc. I wondered what the tone of the exhibit would be and whether I’d be distracted. (I’m not against kids – nor did I think it inappropriate that they were there. It just made me wonder what it was going to be like inside.) Not only did they quiet down, the whole place was very quiet and very respectful. It was like being in a library. Any talking that was taking place was done in whispers.
Overall it was a fascinating, educational, and humbling exhibit. I’m grateful not only to the people who did the work to perfect the plastination process, create the displays, and make it available in a touring exhibition, but more importantly to the individuals that felt strongly enough about this work to donate their bodies so that, even after they die, thousands could learn from them.