Today the Anchorage Museum opened their newest exhibit to members of the media. Body Worlds Vital will be on display September 28, 2012 through January 6, 2013, with the hope of educating, inspiring, and connecting people to the greatest machine in the world – themselves. As promised, below are my impressions from an hour of quiet inspection in the company of Dr. Angelina Whalley, director of Body Worlds’ Institute for Plastination, based in Germany.
The exhibit is located on the third floor of the museum, and is included in regular museum admission prices ($20/adult, $15/ 3012). Visitors are greeted by a volunteer, offered a guide, and invited to navigate a series of panels upon which casts of human forms are hung. Kids can pick up a Family Guide here as well, with a series of activities to help guide kids and their parents through the exhibit. Those not interested in seeing the Body Worlds exhibit will not be able to view it from this area.
Body Worlds is divided by body system, beginning with the least invasive, and most familiar system to most of us – bones and muscles. As the exhibit progresses to other, more complicated systems, guests naturally become more and more comfortable. A key toward a successful visit with young people. Dr. Whalley took a minute to explain why Body Worlds is indeed an exhibit of value for children, offering more perspective than many parents might consider.
“Children need to learn everything about everything,” she said. “And it’s up to us, the grownups in their lives, to show them in a respectful, thoughtful way.”
True enough, and the entire space seems to reflect this mantra, with low light, soft music, and enormous panels featuring insightful quotes and black and white photos of humankind. As I walked through the rooms, I felt less and less like I was in a scientific exhibit, and more like I was in the company of a master artist’s studio. Bodies were artfully arranged in various stages of movement to show both their human-ness and kinetic ability; a cowboy, a runner, an opera singer – each one displayed in as open a way as possible, identifying that person’s unique talent from the inside out. That uniqueness is also a marker for the Body Worlds team, according to Dr. Whalley.
“Just like people are so beautifully different on the outside, so are they beautifully different on the inside,” she gently reminded me. Did you ever think of yourself that way? I didn’t.
Interspersed among the body exhibits are other, more academic features as well, including some fascinating video streams of our nervous system, cardivascular system, and skin that held my attention, and offer extra explanation for such things as memory, diseases, and obesity. An audio tour is also available, and highly recommended to get even more information.
However, for all the tasteful, respectful body exhibits I viewed, it was the true mission of Body Worlds Vital that proved most powerful. A major focus of the exhibit’s appearance in Alaska centers around healthy lifestyles and choices, meaningful in a state with high obesity, smoking, and alcohol abuse rates. There are no lectures or programs that can send a message more loud and clear than the sight of a lung so black with tar residue it appeared ready to crumble, or a human liver so large with fatty tissue due to alcohol abuse that it was three times the size of a healthy organ. Obesity rates worldwide are profiled as well, with families from various countries sharing a week of eating habits via photograph. Think it matters? It sure does.
Further striking was the realization that our bodies don’t belong to anyone but us – ourselves – moi – me, and nobody but me gets to choose how I treat that body. The overarching theme was that my personal destiny of health is determined by, guess who? Me. And, if I screw up, my body is going to do everything it can to repair itself, in spite of me. What a message to send to teenagers who are growing and changing and becoming aware of their bodies as often frustrating aspects of overall self worth: “Your Body Loves You. Got that!?”
So, who should go? Almost everybody. But here are my final recommendations:
Do remind kids of the need to be respectful and somewhat quiet. Certain areas that felt more personal were those relating to my own life; I lost an aunt recently to Alzheimer’s disease, for example, so seeing the effects of this devasting disease on the brain and reading a quote by Ronald Regan was extremely touching. Be sensitive to how other people react.
Yes, there are exposed reproductive organs. A whole section about them, in fact, talking about the incredible wonder of human procreation and how, and why. This area is in the way back, after the gastrointestinal system and “What the World Eats” panels, so if you would like to save this for another conversation with your kids – there’s your chance. Elsewhere, male bodies are left with parts exposed, but as unobtrusive as kneecaps or ears. It is what it is, and that’s how you explain it.
One question mark for some parents might be a video explaining the plastination technique. Located on a back wall near the aforementioned genito-urinary system, this short video explains, tastefully but in very graphic detail, the process by which bodies are prepared for the plastination process. I found it fascinating, but a little difficult to watch, especially when the bodies were manipulated before rigidity set in. Think on this for kids under 10.
Are you a member of the Museum? Consider visiting alone before bringing younger kids if you have any hesitation at all. Also take advantage of the multiple visit option, going back to see other aspects of the exhibit, or to participate in any number of the fantastic activities going on throughout the exhibit season (open to everyone, by the way).
Go see Body Worlds. It’s honest, it’s beautiful, and it’s a wonderful way to explore the intricacies of humankind as a family.
As Dr. Whalley said, “Nothing is closer to us than our own body.”