Is It Art or Is It Gross Anatomy?

It’s squished frog season here on the Oregon coast.

The Skin Man

The Skin Man

I passed at least 20 on my morning dog walk. I feel sorry for them, but I am also have a morbid fascination with them and often examine what’s left of them. That’s not surprising since when I lived in Washington D.C. in the 1980s and 90s one of my favorite haunts was the Walter Reed Medical Museum. Among other things it had very graphic displays of reconstructed faces after they’d been mutilated in various wars, the leg of a Civil War general who ordered a medic to preserve what was left of it after it had been severed by a cannon ball, the bloated leg of someone who had died of elephantiasis, lots other diseased, abnormal and normal body parts in jars, the bullet that killed Lincoln, and what I believe was the worlds largest collection of human embryos. Obviously it was not a museum suitable for everyone. Then again, I’m not suitable for everyone since the only thing I found gross in gross anatomy was the smell of formaldehyde.

When OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) hosted the Body Worlds exhibit in 2007 I made a special pilgrimage to Portland to see it. It had dozens of bodies and body parts that had undergone a process called plastination. How to describe it? Corpses had been stripped of their skin; plastic has been injected into their muscles and other remaining tissues and then posed in amazing and stunning positions.

The exhibit was surrounded by controversy. Is it ethical to display bodies–especially still anatomically correct ones–in a museum? OMSI and Body World officials said that it’d all been done for educational purposes, to get people interested in anatomy and to show people what happens if you smoke, drink or partake of other unhealthy lifestyle choices. None of it, they said, was done for prurient purposes.

And are the plastinates–as the preserved bodies are called–art? The poses they were in were striking. The first case you encountered at the OMSI exhibit had a man holding his skin that has been peeled off his well-muscled body. When I saw it I let out an audible “Whoa!” As I went through the exhibit, I said “Whoa” more times that I’ve ever said in a single afternoon . . . except for the time that I was on an ill tempered horse, but I’ll save that story for a future blog.

My take on the controversy? People who knew what was in store for them in the after life donated all the bodies. Is this any worse than getting fifteen minutes of fame by being a contestant on Survivor or Are You Smarter than A Fifth Grader? I think not.

Frankly, what disturbed me most was that there weren’t any bodies posed in positions we’re all more likely to find ourselves in on a daily basis. They had a skate boarder in the middle of a flip, his male organs a’fly’n, a hurdler in mid hurdle with brain slices coming out of his skull and a fellow balancing on three balls while holding all his internal organs in the air. Where was the couch potato with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other, or a blogger hunched over a computer? Apparently the plastination process removes not only all the body’s liquids, but the fat, too, so I imagine some of these folks may look better in death than they did in life. Still, I think I’m only volunteering as an organ donor. No everlasting plasticine fame for me.

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