I just got home from opening night, and it was a blast! Here’s how the day went:
Got up early in the morning – well, early enough when you’re on vacation. My dad was making pancakes, multi-grain toasted bagels, and french toast. He has a cough, but it’s the kind of non-productive cough that you can’t get rid of, and annoys you until you finally pop a chest muscle. He refuses to take medicine! I think he could use a Z-pak, honestly, the cough says respiratory bacterial infection to me, plain and simple. But enough pharmacy talk!
After breakfast, snippets of conversation pretty much went like this:
“Should we pack sunblock? Where’s the sunblock?! We need the sunblock!”
“I looked up the place on Google street view, and it looks like a broken down house.”
Me: “It’s a historic church building. The whole city looks like that.”
The best was left unsaid. I kept telling my mom that the people in the Body World exhibit at the Franklin Institute were not real, and only facsimiles. When I had finally calmed her down so that she wasn’t wide-eyed and panicking like a hunted bunny – the woman next to us in the elevator had to say, “Oh no, they’re definitely real bodies!” Which only served to wrench open my mother’s eyelids even wider.
Once inside of the exhibit, I managed to coax her over to one person, with the back cut away so you could observe the spinal column. But only for a few seconds. She managed to find the one video monitor in the whole place displaying live people – pleasant images of babies playing in white diapers. She had a fixed, tunnel vision while ignoring the suspended cadavers to the side.
My dad thoroughly took it all in, but didn’t get too close. He was taken back to good memories of being a medical student observing autopsies. My first impressions as I walked in were, “I feel like I’m at work.” while I quickly glimpsed over the skeletal displays. Sometimes I just couldn’t help myself, and I had to inspect the bodies for age, sex, and race. It’s just an instinct. But the absolute beauty of the full body displays was aesthetically pleasing, in a very shocking way. The business of death has its own evoked feelings and images, but the brilliant mind of von Hagens brings a sharp sense of wonder, beauty, and curiosity. Nothing I saw was grotesque, except maybe some eyeballs. But I have my own thing about eyeballs. As a child, I dissected an eyeball. It was possibly the worst specimen you could ever hand to a grammar school child to dissect – no matter how “gifted and talented”. You should start kids off easy, like a digestive tract or something.
Anyway! I was extremely pleased with the full body displays. It was a little disappointing that pictures were not allowed, and there were even police officers stationed inside at some points. (Bodies can attract weird people. The osteology lab where I worked was rigged with many silent alarms. One of which was once tripped by a stray cat… that’s a whole other story!) But my favorite was called “The Angel”. It was a woman incised at the back in such a way that the muscles lifted away into wing shapes. She was looking and reaching towards the ceiling; it was a very thoughtful and moving posture.
Other highlights were “The Ringmaster”, a body positioned like a gymnast on the rings, with slices of flesh cut away leaving only rings around the torso and limbs to illustrate how much flesh adds to the small skeletal structure. There were fantastic slices (How does he slice whole people so precisely?) of bodies, obese and skinny. Comparison specimens from the ailed and the healthy. A man sliced and expanded vertically – if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Cell”, you’ll know what I’m talking about (the horse!). There were nervous and circulatory systems singularly displayed in anatomical position. I can’t even begin to imagine the skill needed to remove such things!
There was “Drawer Man” with blocks of flesh removed and slid out, to show how compact the organs were. There was a soccer player, a ballet dancer, ice skaters together, and a five month pregnant woman. I never imagined that the top half of your stomach is your organs, and the bottom your child. There were infants, fetuses, old, and a skateboarding teenager. The essence of life was captured with the shells of those who once bore it.
There were also many animals! There was a large two humped camel. If you don’t know how large camels are, just imagine someone standing on your head – and that is how tall the camel is. There was a lamb, outlined only with it’s circulatory system.
One of the interesting things I noted on almost all of the full bodies, was that belly button, sex organs and nipples would be left alone. It was almost as if they were identity markers, an integral rope between the shell of what was and the catalysts of new life.
I will never forget von Hagens. Not only did he invent the interesting procedure of Plastination, but he also helped bring Ron and I closer together. One of the first things we ever did together was watch von Hagens perform autopsies on a male and female. Years later, we still talk about the overly huge saw used to slice open the uterus. I still question why such a giant saw was needed anyway, but the guy is a genius, and if he needs a giant saw, then he needs a giant saw.
After a quick bite to eat at Little John’s Pizzeria right next door to the Franklin Institute. The veggie wrap was delicious, and my parents report that the Philly cheese-steak in Philadelphia was amazing.
To be continued…