A show with preserved human bodies will be at the Telus World of Science for four months
Linda Carreiro has asked her students for the past 15 years to observe human corpses. She teaches anatomical drawing for the arts at the University of Calgary.
What fascinated Carreiro at the 2008 Edmonton Body Worlds exhibit – a show with preserved human bodies and organs on display – were the responses of people who had never seen anything like that before.
“People were doing exactly what my students do when I teach them anatomy and I start getting into the body. People started to palpate their (own) faces; or to feel their back muscles, when it came to the back; or to breathe in deeply when they saw the set of lungs there,” Carreiro said.
In the Body Worlds exhibit, real human remains are preserved in order to illustrate the human body. The bodies are displayed performing tasks that emphasize the muscles and motions of the body.
photo: courtesy of Body Worlds
She said that the removal of the skin to show what lies beneath makes people aware of what they have in common with all human beings, and that it is a powerful experience.
Body Worlds will be at the Telus World of Science in Calgary, from April 30 until early September. The exhibit includes 200 specimens: human organs and about 20 full-sized bodies preserved through a process called plastination. The Calgary show includes a special presentation on the brain.
Carreiro said that years of working with students has shown her that people won’t know how comfortable they are with the experience until they see the dead bodies.
The reminder that our bodies won’t last forever is overwhelming for some of her students, Carreiro said. Sometimes, the keenest to go end up having to leave the room, but most see it as a privilege and stay to learn, she said.
John Bertram, who teaches human anatomy to medical students at the University of Calgary, said he thought it more important for the general public to see the Body Worlds exhibit than for people entering the medical profession, because it may be the only opportunity for most to have this experience.
Bertram said it was like a visit to a national park, where people get a chance to see the natural world in its glory.
“No matter how many times I see human anatomy, I always find it very awesome to get that opportunity. Just like every time I go to the Rockies, it impresses me just like the first time I went,” he said.
Whereas the public may look at the heart, lung or brain, Bertram said he is attracted by details that are important to the function of the individual. For example, the heart is surrounded by a closed sack called the pericardium. It’s what the surgeon first sees when he gets to the heart and it is very important, Bertram said, because a change in pressure in that bag – in a car accident for example – can cause death, even if there is no damage to the heart.
Bertram is also the director of the body donation program for the university. He said that medical teaching and research programs depend on human bodies, and that about 8,000 southern Alberta families are currently registered to donate their remains to the medical school.
“There are a variety of reasons people donate. For the most part I perceive that people would like to give back,” Bertram said.
Bertram and Carreiro said that the life-like poses in which the preserved bodies are displayed in Body Worlds help imagine how parts of the body operate to perform daily activities. But Carreiro also noted that the pinky-red colour given to the muscles and organs is “kind of cheesy” and that it helps soften the reality of the exhibit.
Carreiro warned that the body of a pregnant woman who died in childbirth was very disturbing for some people at the 2008 Edmonton show.
Jennifer Martin, CEO of the Telus World of Science, said this part of the display – which also has unborn babies from an old European collection – will be closed-off, so that people enter it knowingly.
Martin said she does not know yet which specimens will be in Calgary, but that 200 are coming and that visitors will be introduced gradually to the complete bodies preserved through synthetic resin impregnation. The exhibit starts with the familiar skeleton, then organs, and finally the 20 to 25 full bodies. She said it helps people adjust.
“We know that you learn more when you are emotionally connected, and because this is real, the emotional connection is powerful,” Martin said.
She said the intention of the show is to engage people’s curiosity and to open a dialogue. She said it is phenomenal to hear parent and child, friends and even strangers talk while viewing Body Worlds.
There are no clear guidelines on whether children should attend the show. Martin and Bertram said they have no reservations about taking their own children to Body Worlds, but they have recommendations for parents.
Martin said studies show there is an age, usually between six and eight, when children ask about death and disease and are particularly sensitive to these issues. She said it might be a time to be careful, because these are real dead bodies on display.
Bertram said parents must be aware of their children’s emotional development and preconceived notions and guide them. He said to monitor their reactions and follow through with any concerns.
“Sometimes people may react inappropriately because they are uncomfortable. It is an opportunity to work on the issue,” Bertram said.
“We know that you learn more when you are emotionally connected, and because this is real, the emotional connection is powerful.”
— Jennifer Martin
He said adults with reservations about the show might wish to ask themselves why they react so badly to the inner organs of the body, when they are carrying them around and depending on them. Some people may find they have legitimate reasons for avoiding the exhibit, Bertram added.
For people seeking quieter times at the exhibit, Martin suggests weekdays, except in May and June from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. when schools visit. Late evenings, when the exhibit stays open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, are expected to have lower traffic as well.
The exhibit will be on display at the Telus World of Science from April 30 until early September. The hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission costs are between $12.50 and $27.
For more information, visit www.calgaryscience.ca or http://www.bodyworlds.com.