"Every body is a treasure," said Dr. Angelina Whalley, creative and conceptual designer for the new "BODY WORLDS RX: Prescriptions for Healthy Living" exhibition at The Health Museum. We wanted to know more about the deceased who donated their bodies for plastination to make up the more than 75 real human specimens in the exhibit. Healthy or infirm, the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, accepts all donations. "Our goal is to show the anatomy," said Whalley, a licensed physician who serves as the institute's director.
While we've seen "Body Worlds" exhibits in Houston before, in 2006 and again in 2008, this exhibit is different in that its focus is on health and on leading a healthy lifestyle, which is perfect timing for those who are wavering in their new year's resolutions.
For those interested in the "how," the plastination process begins by first halting decay with formalin, then removing fat and water. A reactive polymer is introduced and the body is positioned into the desired pose before the curing (hardening) occurs. It takes about 1,500 man-hours over an entire year to plastinate a whole body.
Whalley's husband, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, invented the plastination science and created the "Body Worlds" exhibitions. He's taken some heat in the German press, mostly for allegations that the process contravenes German funerary legislation that pertains to the public display of human remains, earning him the salacious nicknames of "Dr. Death" and the "German corpse taxidermist." It's possible he poked the bear in 2009 when he displayed two corpses having sex in a Berlin exhibit.
Dr. Melanie Johnson, the president and CEO of The Health Museum, brought in this exhibit in response to community demand. Visitors would often tell her, "It's spectacular for young children," but they wanted the museum to "elevate the content to be richer and more authentic." Johnson says there's a lot of buzz about this exhibit, and rightly so, as it offers a rare glimpse into the human body and is fascinating for adult audiences (as well as teens and children).
Visitors who have a loved one either suffering from a disease or who has succumbed to disease will immediately gravitate toward certain areas of the exhibit. The specimens offer sobering looks at the effects of disease on our bodies, but also hopefulness. For example: Drinking alcohol can result in a fatty liver, but sobriety can reverse the damage as long as abstinence occurs before cirrhosis sets in.
There are displays that show how cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the leading causes of death in the United States, how a sedentary lifestyle produces ailments, and how obesity and dementia have become so prevalent. There might be a few ostriches left on the planet who don't know the dangers of smoking, but this exhibit hits visitors over the head with the message. There's an interactive model where the viewer can see the effects of smoking on the human body (skin health, body fat percentage, maternity) in a side-by-side comparison between a smoker and a non-smoker.
Children and teens might have a few nervous giggles, as it's easy to tell males from females, but it's a fascinating way to learn more about our bodies. Highlights include the X-Lady, with her skin flayed away from the skeleton, the bisected Split Man, and the Spine with its double s-shaped curve.
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Also interesting are the large-scale photographs of families around the world, posing with a week's supply of food. It seems that Indians eat fresh produce and naan; Italians consume bread, pasta and only a small amount of meat; Australians are big meat-eaters and, in the United States, we go for pizza, fast food and milk.
The exhibit compares the cost (in U.S. dollars) to feed a typical family in a week, and we didn't fare so well: India ($39.27), Italy ($260.11), Egypt ($68.53), Australia ($376.45), Mexico ($189.09), Canada ($147.41) and the United States ($341.98).
The Institute for Plastination also has an exhibit, "BODY WORLDS: Animal Inside Out," with more than 50 animals, including a giraffe, an Asian elephant and a gorilla. It's been touring Europe and Canada, but we might not see it in the United States anytime soon, as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has rejected its import. As more and more animals become extinct, however, the process could provide an alternative for zoos and educators.
"BODY WORLDS RX: Prescriptions for Healthy Living" continues through April 23, at The Health Museum, 1515 Hermann Drive, open Mondays through Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (free admission), Sundays noon to 5 p.m., 713-521-1515, thehealthmuseum.org. Free to $10.