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The science exhibit 'Body Worlds' has generated controversy every stop of its tour for being too realistic, even gross. But we've seen it, and we think it's amazing. So have no fear.
The traveling show "Body Worlds," which is making its Midwest debut at the Museum of Science and Industry, becomes most interesting when we're confronted with its hysteria-free reality.
Like the horror film hype of days gone by, with ambulances on standby outside movie theaters festooned with placards trumpeting that "management is not responsible for trauma or injuries from this film," the hullabaloo surrounding "Body Worlds" doesn't match reality.
The show--intended to educate by presenting our bodies and their workings to us in unprecedented detail--was previously seen in Germany, Asia and California and was upsetting to some because . . . well . . . its subjects are dead people. There were protests against the show in Europe and Asia, as well as some questioning of the contention that every body and body part on display was acquired consensually.
In Chicago, newspaper headlines labeled it "controversial," and at the MSI we saw groups of high school girls enter the show, clutching each other's arms as if some monster might leap out from behind the next corner. "Boo! I'm your spleen! Muhahaha!"
What isn't open to question is the success of this show, which drew more than two illion visitors in Japan, spawned four- to five-hour waits in Germany and is proving to be a hit in its ongoing Los Angeles run.
After our visit, what's beyond question is that "Body Worlds" is fascinating and beautiful, the best thing to have appeared at the Museum of Science and Industry in decades. It's an informational and aesthetic triumph. Keep your Coal Mines and U-505 submarines and give us body sections. The real magic of "Body Worlds" is that all will leave the show stunned and amazed, because there's a lot that you don't know about your body.
Here are things that challenge the fear factor of "Body Worlds."
Plastic Man isn't scary. The process that is used to preserve the show's specimens, Plastination, imparts the human body parts featured in the show with an artificial sheen that makes them appear fake. There aren't glistening, thumping organs here. You'll see much grosser stuff on the Discovery Channel, or one of those real-life emergency room shows on the Learning Channel.
Stand back from the human. "Body Worlds" uses clinical terminology. For instance, the placard doesn't read "human leg" but "lower extremity with knee-joint prosthesis." This detachment makes everything more approachable.
It eases the visitor in. "Body World" begins slowly, with the skeletal system, before easing you into cross sections and more elaborate body and nervous system features. This graduated approach allows you to get into the show, instead of focusing on the fact that everything is real. Everyone has seen skeletons in biology classes and textbooks, right? You get bones galore, including a fascinating trio vying for the title of smallest bone in the human body: inner-ear bones the anvil, hammer and stirrup (the winner).
We're pretty cool. The first full skeleton seen in the show is one that lays bare (OK, pun intended) the cartilage and ligament system. The first thing we thought, upon seeing the bones of the foot, is that foot-stomping is out. For now and forever. The bones are so tiny, so numerous, so delicate that it's a wonder how we manage to walk, run or hop about without breaking every bone from our ankles on down. The hand contains 27 bones, which are controlled by 37 muscles. The fact that "Body Worlds" is presenting you to you isn't that apparent until you find yourself gazing at the shoulder joint and unconsciously moving your own shoulder, to understand further how it all works. Brilliant.
Just the facts, ma'am. It seems that you can buy the very simple scenery surrounding the displays--rocks, placards and the like--for about $37.50 at your local Home Depot. This simplicity doesn't get in the way of the show's message and impact the way a more elaborate presentation might have. And the show's excellent signage tells you what is going on. Most of the specimens are just sitting in the room, amid banners that either describe what part of the show you're in, or are emblazoned with quotes from famous folks about how cool we are. "What a piece of work is man," saith Shakespeare.
Learning is fun. Some things we gleaned from the show, even though we weren't in a learning mood, are that our skin is the largest and heaviest of our organs and the liver is the largest gland. Seeing all of the facial blood vessels makes it readily apparent why blushing is so easy and so evident in lighter-skinned people. Oh, and you really should sit up straight. If you don't believe us, have a look at the spine of the skeleton hunched over the chess board, and how unnaturally it curves. Yikes!
The body is beautiful. Some stations, such as one that shows the configuration of the blood vessels in the hand and forearm, are downright gorgeous. The red is so vivid, with an almost-impossible density that makes it all seem like art. Look at how intricate the stack of a spinal column is, and be amazed.
You have been warned. The show makes its point right at the entrance with a sign that says, essentially, "everybody consented to give us everything that you're going to see here." Even though there are no religious references, or admissions of past controversy in this show presented as the marvels of science, the disclaimer is clearly intended to quell debates. One potential point of controversy will be the pregnant woman/eighth-month fetus display, but it is curtained-off. On the day we were there, mothers were walking children through the room, prompting a colleague to say that she wouldn't take her small children to that part of "Body Worlds." There were no adverse reactions during our "Body Worlds" visit, and the visitor comment books contained overwhelmingly positive post-show comments.
"Man is nothing more than what he makes of himself." This Jean-Paul Sartre quote, the last that you see in "Body Worlds," sums up the show perfectly. This exhibition is a first-rate New Year's resolution. The smoker's lung will make you quit smoking--instantly. The body sections from an obese person (who died at the age of 50 after his heart gave out) will make you resolve to lose weight. The evidence has never been clearer that certain things are bad for you.
It is perhaps this, and this alone, that makes "Body Worlds" so highly recommended, even if it weren't in and of itself so fascinating, stunning, educational and downright cool.
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The facts about `Body Worlds'
Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive
When: "Body Worlds" is up through Sept. 5. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Wed., and 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.-Sun. through March 20. After March 20, "Body Worlds" will be open from 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. seven days a week.
Price: $11-$21 with museum admission, $9-$16 after museum hours and on free days. You can also purchase tickets online at www.msichicago.org/tickets/index.html. Tickets are dated and time-stamped, issued in half-hour increments. Audio tours are available and come in two levels, a basic version, suitable for kids, and a higher-level tour for non-professionals. Rental fees are the same for both levels: $4 for adults; $3 for seniors, children ages 3-11, members and adult groups of 20 or more and $2 for school groups.
Logistics: It took us about 90 minutes to navigate the show, so there will be some crowd overlap. Our advice is to arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds, which began in earnest around 11 a.m. on the Thursday we visited "Body Worlds." There are many paths through the show, which eliminates any potential bottlenecks.
-- Kevin Williams