Visual Arts

'Bodies Revealed' exhibit: an anatomy class for the public

A skeleton perched on a bicycle as part of Bodies Revealed, the inaugural exhibit at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery. The exhibit runs from Saturday through Jan. 8.
A skeleton perched on a bicycle as part of Bodies Revealed, the inaugural exhibit at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery. The exhibit runs from Saturday through Jan. 8.

As an anatomy professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Roy Glover was used to dealing with carefully preserved human specimens that medical students used in their studies. For years, though, he thought that the pieces should be available to more than just aspiring doctors.

"It's important for everyone to understand more about the human body than we actually do," Glover said. "There's a lot to learn and a lot of information, not to make them into new physicians, but to make people better informed."

When Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions called to ask whether he would help organize a traveling human anatomy exhibit, he was excited by the opportunity to give a wider audience a closer, inside look at the human body — with real human bodies.

Bodies Revealed, an exhibit that has attracted thousands of visitors around the world, opens Saturday at the new Lexington Center Museum and Gallery and continues through Jan. 8. It is the inaugural exhibit in the space that was once occupied by the defunct University of Kentucky Basketball Museum.

Center executives said that Bodies Revealed is similar to but not the same as the exhibit that was at the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2008. Like that exhibit, all the pieces are humans or parts of humans who once walked the earth.

That has generated some controversy for Bodies Revealed and similar exhibits since they began opening in 2007. Some human rights groups have questioned how the bodies were obtained and contend that permission was never given for them to be exhibited.

Glover and Premier Exhibits said they have confirmed that the bodies came from people in China who had volunteered their bodies to scientific research and education, and who died of natural causes. The bodies were preserved through a process of acetone drying and injecting them with liquid silicone to harden. Some specimens have been artificially colored to highlight movement in the circulatory system or certain muscles. When the exhibit ends, Glover said, pieces will be returned to medical schools, where they are used in research and instruction.

The exhibit is billed as appropriate for children accompanied by adults, and Lexington Center presented an educator preview Thursday to generate interest from teachers. Visitors are strongly cautioned before entering one room, which includes a 4-week-old embryo and a 22-week-old fetus that died before birth, and a mother and child who died before delivery. Organizers said it shows the fascinating process of child development but acknowledged that it might be disturbing to some visitors.

In the overall exhibit, viewers get to explore the intricacies of the human body. There are full-size specimens designed to show various aspects of muscles and the nervous system, and individual bones, systems and organs, including the surprisingly large liver and small stomach.

"Seeing the size of the stomach has completely changed how I think about eating," Lexington Center spokeswoman Sheila Kenny said during a preview tour of the exhibit. Bodies Revealed general manager Jessica Rodiman joked that she had eaten burritos as big as the stomach.

Rodiman said that people are affected in varying ways by the exhibit, depending on their physical activities or their health problems. There are installations to drive home points about certain body parts and the impact on them by voluntary activity, such as the darkened lungs of a smoker in the respiratory system portion of the exhibit, and the liver of an alcoholic ravaged by cirrhosis.

There is a box across from the lungs inviting viewers to put their cigarettes in it. Glover said, "We've collected 3,000 to 4,000 packs of cigarettes. We've had comments from people who said, 'Until I saw the actual lungs, I did not realize the impact cigarettes were having on me."

And that's part of the importance of having an exhibit of actual human specimens, Glover said. There have been body parts made from plastic and other materials on display for years, but there is a greater impact in seeing actual humans.

Many pieces in the exhibit, including most of the full-size people, are displayed in the open, with no barriers or glass to prevent close inspection, Rodiman said, although there is a strict do-not-touch rule until the end. That's when visitors can visit a station where they are allowed to hold organs including a brain and a liver — the two heaviest organs in the body.

Rodiman has been with the exhibit for five years, but she said that when she tours Bodies Revealed, it still strikes her: "This is us. Everything we see here is inside us."

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