The body electric

Preserved in plastic, human remains horrify and edify at the Science Museum.

Greg Corradini

Obsession with health and the body is rampant. A particularly ignorant portion of the population, thanks to keen marketing strategies and insidious scare tactics, now applaud the health benefits of organic cigarettes while they decry hotdog buns.

The plastination exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota takes a more immediate approach toward piquing its audience’s preoccupation with the body and its dysfunctions – it puts the anatomical evils themselves on display.

Plastination is the preservation of thin, transparent slices of a human corpse in liquid plastic. Scientists armored in orange, full-bodied protective suits accomplish this feat through a number of grisly procedures.

They deep freeze the corpse, slice it in 2- to 8-millimeter slabs and replace the water and fat content with liquid plastic.

By turns educational and unnerving, scientist Gunther von Hagens’ plastination procedure poses some interesting questions, such as: What is the benefit of viewing a person’s unhealthy innards?

On an educational level, museum patrons are afforded an opportunity to view a ketchup-stain-like brain hemorrhage entombed in its natural surrounding. The lung’s nebulous fibers are also on parade, peppered with darker regions. The viewers learn, reading a laminated card matter-of-factly, that pollution and smoking are possible causes for the spotty deposits.

Frightened? Well, you should be – that’s what the curators want.

Anti-drug campaigns have used similar tactics to drive their point home. In the early 1990s, millions of Americans watched as an egg frying in a cast-iron skillet was compared to someone’s drug-addled brain in a ubiquitous television commercial.

Despite the poetic imagery, the more difficult issues of why kids used drugs were left unattended and the commercial wound up being toothless as well as tasteless.

In unarguable and very graphic representations, the human plastination exhibit appeals to the viewer’s cravings for the sensational. An interaction between you and cholesterol plaque cannot be experienced with tired indifference alone.

Yet even when the exhibit attempts to explain the context of the images we confront, they do so with didactic obtuseness. The fun factoids about emphysema, a disorder affecting the lungs’ capacity to function properly, are juxtaposed with the deteriorating image of the lung’s connective tissue. If simply explaining that some behavior was harmful prevented people from indulging in their vices, where would the state and the church find their reason for existing?

Do we really want to become healthier because of this exhibit?

In the end, it might be impossible to discern the deep roots of human obsession with the body and corruption. The plastination exhibit lays it all out, daring us to confront our bodies, our fears and our reason.