I finally made it out a couple of weeks ago to see Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies at Science Place in Fair Park. I assume that by now everybody knows what this is: An exhibition of “plastinates,” human bodies, from donors, preserved by having their bodily fluids replaced by reactive resins and elastomers. For more information on plastination, go here. Clark Flood has also written about the Houston incarnation of the show for Glasstire.
I went intending to write about Body Worlds for this blog, but after about thirty minutes in the galleries, I realized that I was having essentially no response to it at all. My press kit described the exhibition as “Original in Vision” “ Authentic in Creation” and “Inspiring in its Mission.” I will grant it the first two, but when I went looking for a mission statement the most I came up with were statements about choosing healthy over unhealthy lifestyles and developing interest in the life sciences. Since adults have already made those choices and developed what interests they are likely to have, this directs the exhibition towards kids. And at 11am on a school day, they are there in force. And they seem really interested. Mission, I suppose, accomplished.
I was mostly just made a little melancholy. There is another statement in the press material to the effect that Body Worlds shows what makes us human. I always thought that self-awareness and civilization had something to do with that. If they want really to get down to basics this could be an exhibition of DNA models. Instead we have these mememtos mori in their funny poses with some humanistic quotes on banners from the likes of Seneca and Einstein.
Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.
But then last week, I found myself in the glass flower room of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. This is officially known as The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. The Blaschkas were Leopold and his son Rudolph, Dresden glass makers who received a commission from Harvard professor Charles Lincoln Goodale to create accurate glass models for botany students. He had seen, and been favorably impressed by the Blaschka’s models of marine life. With money from Elizabeth C. Ware, the Blaschkas began work in 1886. By the time Leopold died in 1895, 75% if the 3000 models had been completed. Rudolph continued to work and to experiment with new techniques until 1936.
The glass models, which represent over 800 species, are uncanny and lovely. They fall into that category of things that are so beautiful you think they are fake. Of course they are fake flowers, bu they are not fake glass models of flowers, despite the insistence of several pre-adolescent boys in the room who asserted without a doubt that they were plastic, not glass.
Life-sized versions of the plants are exhibited alongside magnified details that range from 3 to 600 times actual size. Some are quite showy and some are rather plain, but they are all endlessly fascinating. And here is where the possibly unfair comparison to Body Worlds begins.
The Blaschka’s flowers speak to the abundance of life, not only the variety of species but the infinite variety that exists on the molecular level within each one. The effect for the viewer – this viewer – was just the opposite of the reductionist experience I had at Body Worlds. I was invigorated by the flowers, not only by their aesthetic quality but by the history they embodied. The Blaschka family had been glass makers for several generations, and yet they prove that the tradition they inherited was still open to innovation. Dr. von Hagens’ plastination is a high tech process designed to produce the same result every time.
Both projects were conceived as learning devices, but they have also both entered the culture as exhibitions for popular consumption. Dr. von Hagen puts on the bigger show, but the Blaschkas have him beat on the aesthetic level. Body Worlds is truly is “once in a lifetime experience” in the sense that I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. Next time I find myself in Cambridge, I will definitely pay the Blashkas another visit.
Also,while at the HMNH, you can see really great dinosaur skeletons.