This weird thing happened to me as I strolled silently through the Body Worlds exhibition this week. I was simultaneously trying to drink in every last morbidly fascinating detail, and also trying to remove myself from the reality of what I was seeing. At one point, upon catching myself squinting deep into a chest cavity, I jerked my head back so suddenly I came over a little woozy.
My brain was continually reminding me: ‘These are actual dead bodies! That there was a real pumping heart. This man probably did really love playing chess, only probably not with his dangly bits on display (or maybe he did, I wouldn’t judge), this is all REAL! Why doesn’t it smell??? Ooooh, what’s THAT?’
But that’s the thing about Body Worlds. The fact that each exhibit is real, is what makes it such a fascinating phenomenon. You don’t get much more anatomically correct than this.
This year’s installment of Gunther von Hagens’ popular travelling exhibition, Body Worlds Vital, looks at more than just what lies tightly packed away beneath our skin. It looks at disease, injury and ageing as well. There’s so much to learn here and it’s served in easily digestible slices (ahem), with informative posters and video footage. If you’re keen to find out more about plastination, have a look here – I had a hard enough time picking a picture to include here that wouldn’t be too graphic for the those with a more sensitive disposition, so I’m not about to go into the finer details here.
The thing with an exhibition like this, is that it attracts a large number of people, especially since it’s located at the Waterfront again. So if you want breathing room you’re going to need to pick your time carefully. I chose to visit late in the afternoon on a public holiday, and on the opening day to boot.
Generally, lots of people is not an issue for me, I’m happy to stand back and wait for a gap. No, it’s the “know-it-alls” that really wind me up. That person who, even though it only just opened six hours ago, is talking to his friends as though he’s spent everyday there since 2011. I swear, if I had to hear him go on about the smoker’s lungs for one minute longer I would have plastinated him myself on the spot.
I never thought I’d be so relieved to see a pair of tar-blackened organs. It meant I could leave his smug lecturing behind me for a few minutes…
And go look at a weeks-old foetus instead…
Quite. There are warnings at the entrances to some of the exhibits, and ways to bypass them. And rightly so. But I figured I’d just been up close and personal with the cross section of a scrotum, I could handle the real “life” version of what I’ve been shown in text books and on projector screens since I was a kid.
You know, it’s remarkable, the fingers on an eight week old foetus. But as I found myself gazing down at the older unborn babies, it properly dawned on me that they weren’t drawings, or models. They are real. And it’s very different to the other fully grown specimens, with their skin peeled back, eye balls exposed and dangling nerves. The pre-natal subjects are displayed as is. The tiniest suspended in fluid. The oldest frozen in time in a glass case. Grim.
Having left the smug ex-smoker behind, I found myself trailing a couple and their young children. So many questions. And then a giggle from the little boy as he exclaimed “No wonder I feel funny after I’ve had supper!” His father looked back at the wall-mounted digestive system he’d just explained and laughed.
Then the kid hurried over to a stomach and said: “Daddy, is this also real? Did they just make a hole in it so we can see inside?”
Soon I caught up to a group of young teens keeping an eye on a toddler while their parents pored over something else nearby. I’d reached the football players in mid play and as I leant in to get a closer look at a knee, the little tyke piped up from the other side of the display: ” Ball! Ball!”
Well, yes, five of them in fact, if we’re going to be technical. Big sister just sighed and said, ” Yes, ball.”
The final exhibit which calls for viewer discretion involves something the more adventurous among us would know as the reverse cowgirl, but not to worry, the donors gave their consent to be featured as such.
One of the young teens followed me in without reading the sign. She gasped and backtracked. I heard her urgently tell her friends: “We’re not old enough to see that! No! I promise, don’t look!” And of course, one of them ignored her warning and then hurriedly went to find Dad so he could scope it out. I don’t even know. Kids are weird.
If you’re a little squeamish and just want a quick ogle, you won’t need long. But if you want to linger over each exhibit and marvel at the way nerves dangle like tendrils from limbs, or wonder at the almost seaweed like clusters of blood vessels in the torso, give yourself at least an hour.
And oh my gosh, just wait to you see the smoker’s lungs! Sigh. Kill me now, but make sure my remains don’t end up in the adults only section.