A controversial exhibit called "Bodies... The Exhibition" opened recently outside Washington D.C. It showcases skinned and dissected human cadavers that are preserved in liquid silicone rubber.
In the middle of a dimly lit exhibition hall in suburban Washington D.C., a dissected human body lies inside a glass case. Around it, visitors gaze. They do not cringe in horror or disgust, they do not gasp in shock. They just examine it with keen interest. This skinless, specimen could be them.
This and the rest of the rubberized mummies exhibited here help people understand how a human body functions from inside out.
Each body showcases different bodily functions, maladies and injuries.
The sinewy muscles of a male cadaver are cut open in places such as the lower back and the legs to show metal prostheses after an injury.
Sam, an out of town visitor at the museum, can relate. "I've got two steel plates and fifteen screws here [on the arms], and then I've separated both my elbows and I've got another plate and six screws," he says, then points to other places on his arms and continues. "I've got 21 screws and three plates here, and I've got two little screws in this elbow. And you know, I never got to see that. Just the x-rays." Until he came to this exhbit. "You can actually see the plates, and the screws on this body."
Another visitor, Elaine Potowski, is a pharmacist. She observes the spinal fusion of the cadaver. Her 15-year-old son underwent the same surgery a year ago. "It's cool on the one hand but it is a bit unnerving knowing that that's inside of my son," she says. "But I've seen it through the x-rays so, it's actually kind of interesting to see it on this body."
Others, like 18-year old Catlin, a biology student, consider these bodies virtual medical textbooks. "We are learning about the body system and how it works. And I just need to actually see it and see how the process works and see the bodies."
Visitors also have the chance to touch a human brain and a human heart. Both organs, like the rest of the specimens at the exhibition, have been through the polymer process. It is a revolutionary technique that uses silicone rubber to preserve human tissues.
An exhibit expert says the brain is the most difficult organ to preserve. "A brain would actually be spongier," says the expert while she points to the brain. "It would be more fluid and kind of the texture of oatmeal. But the process gives it the feel of a plastic polymer, of silicon polymer, which is exactly what is in the cell now instead of the body fluid."
The heart looks a bit like the traditional heart we draw on paper.
One of the most famous exhibits is a set of blackened, shrunken lungs of a heavy smoker. Next to them is a set of a non-smoker's white, healthy lungs. The difference between the two is so stark that according to exhibit spokesmen, many smokers who have visited the exhibit gave up smoking on the spot.
The exhibition showcases other parts of the body and body functions. There are areas dedicated to the nervous system, the reproductive system, the skeletal system and skin.
The cadavers belong to people who died of natural causes. Some died just five years ago. Others have been preserved since the 1970s. Their bodies were donated for medical research and obtained legally through the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in the People's Republic of China.
The exhibition has generated some negative reaction from groups that say human bodies should not be displayed as exhibits. Others do not regard it as controversial. "I think it's great," says Elaine Potowski, "because we cannot learn how to cure new diseases and things, if you don't understand the way the body is put together."
"Bodies.. The Exhibition" will stay in Washington D.C. until October. Then, it will go on tour to other American and European metropolitan areas.