Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is currently hosting the Body Worlds show, a display of plasticized cadavers and body parts. According to museum publicity, some 16 million people worldwide have seen the show, the creation of Gunther von Hagens, a German inventor who claims to have created the “plastination” technique. This, basically, is a modern-day form of mummification which allows museums to exhibit skinned and otherwise dismembered bodies in interesting and even entertaining postures.
Depending on your point of view, Body Worlds is either an assault on human dignity, or a marvelously educational exhibit designed to point attendees in the direction of healthier lifestyles (see the resinated lungs of smokers! Touch plastinated organs!). But curators at the Museum of Science and Industry knew they were treading into morally problematic territory. Their “parents resource kit” addresses the viscerally repelling nature of the show by equipping parents with a number of morally-neutral inanities such as “Answer your child’s questions honestly — it is okay not to know all the answers,” and “Be sensitive to your own reactions and your children’s reactions.” Presumably, the kids will want to know why the “embryos, fetuses and a pregnant woman who died with her fetus in her womb” are segregated into their own area. No doubt, the impertinent little ones will have embarrassing questions for mom and dad about the polymerized unborn. Suspecting this, curators have helpfully offered that “visitors may choose whether or not to view this area.”
Hagens and his Body World organization dismisses any reservations we might have about the subjects of his entertainment by reminding us that “religion and ideology impeded the study of human anatomy for many centuries.” By the late Middle Ages, he notes, there was a “fundamental shift away from a mythical symbolic understanding of the human body (including corpses and internal organs) and towards a more realistic perspective.” Having kicked the blocks away from the wheels of progress — blocks placed there by religious sorts with “symbolic” views about human person — Hagens has now freed society to view his resinated freak show. He’s also emancipated museum curators to pursue box office success with “dry and odorless” specimens that will “remain unchanged for a virtually unlimited amount of time.” No word how the plastinated will fare at the parousia.
A museum may want to pitch this sideshow as health education or as display of advanced anatomical science. But who are they kidding? This isn’t medical school. Body Worlds is really about spinning the museum turnstiles. The show plays on the public’s ghoulish fascination with freakish oddities. It is carnival culture.
Today, in America, even the death of some pets, and their remains, are treated with more dignity than the unfortunate souls who wound up in plasticized animation at the Museum of Science and Industry. Body Worlds is what happens when you combine a gnostic disregard for human flesh with an entrepreneurial flair. As for “symbolic” understandings of the human body, as Hagens puts it, museum goers might be surprised by how concrete was the understanding of human physicality by the very same “ideologues” he blames for slowing our understanding of anatomy (even when anatomy is at the service of traveling cadaver exhibits at $16 per person).
But, in truth, [God] has even called the flesh to the resurrection, and promises to it everlasting life. For where He promises to save man, there He gives the promise to the flesh. For what is man but the the reasonable animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul by itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No, but it is called the body of man. If, then, neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body.
St. Justin Martyr, fragments of the lost work, On the Resurrection
HT: L. Prater from Clayton