Bodies of Knowledge
The Science Center’s BODIES exhibit inspires the four Carnegie Museums to do what they do best—explore a topic from four very different perspectives.
By John Altdorfer
The arrival of BODIES … The Exhibition to Carnegie Science Center has prompted many to ask: What exactly does it mean to be human? And now a unique collaboration involving all four Carnegie Museums and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine promises to offer some unique insight into that question.
“It was obvious to us from the start that each of the four museums had a wealth of ‘bodies’ in their collections, and that we could create a really interesting series of programs by letting each of them embrace the topic in the ways that they do it best,” says Ron Baillie, chief program officer at the Science Center.
Add a top-notch medical partner to the mix and The Art and Science of the Human Body was born, a five-part lecture series that adds a depth of experience the likes of which hasn’t been available at any other venue that has played host to BODIES.
When the series kicks off February 7 at the Museum of Natural History, the focus will be on the Egyptian art of mummification, and how a recent CT scan of a 2,300-year-old child mummy in the museum’s collection revealed secrets of the boy’s life and death. Step-by-step mortuary practices performed on his body will also be discussed.
“From an archaeologist’s point of view, we now know this fellow inside and out,” says Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s curator of anthropology.
There are significant differences in motivation between the ancient Egyptian morticians, who prepared the dead for the afterlife, and modern-day preparators of BODIES, who preserve bodies for educational reasons. However, the products of both demonstrate how much we can learn about humanity from the deceased.
Shifting the conversation in a different direction, the series will continue February 14 at the Science Center, where the ethical issues of BODIES will come under examination.
“We’ll talk about the controversy openly,” says Baillie. “We’ll focus on the ethics of how the body is used after death for science and education. It’s been a fascinating experience for us to come to a deeper understanding of this issue, and we’re trying to share with our audience in a short period of time what took us a couple of years to discover. We think people will walk away with a variety of conclusions about the exhibit and bodies in general.”
And while BODIES literally gets under our skin to explore the human form, staff at Carnegie Museum of Art will focus on its surface in a February 21 discussion exploring the body as a subject for artists.
“In studies, sketches, and finished works, artists examine both the surface and structure of the body, manipulating its image as they give visual form to compelling questions about the human experience,” says Marilyn Russell, the Museum of Art’s curator of education, noting that 49 images of the nude body are currently on view in the museum’s galleries.
“The collection provides the opportunity to examine notions of the real, the ideal, and the normal; what’s naked and what’s nude; what’s beautiful and what’s not. We’ll consider the physical experience of the viewer, and get ‘under the skin’ to examine body language and the language of body art.”
Andy Warhol was certainly obsessed with appearances—his own and others—and what people did to “enhance” them. When the series returns to the North Side on February 28, The Warhol’s education staff will examine how humans change their looks using everything from steroids to plastic surgery. One of the more fascinating and painful examples will contrast a pair of “Lotus” shoes—the constrictive slippers forced upon Chinese girls for centuries—with a pair of monster disco pumps from the 1970s. In their own way, each reflects the exaggerated ideals of their cultures and times.
“What this really shows us is the lengths people will take to manipulate and transform their bodies to reach perfection,” says Tresa Varner, curator of education and interpretation at The Warhol. “But the more we strive toward perfection, the more we become homogenized.”
Wrapping up the series on March 6, the scientifically curious can “play doctor” thanks to Pitt Med School. During a special “mini medical school,” participants can scientifically explore how bodies work using two different types of simulated patients. First, they will interact with “standardized patients”—people who are specially trained to present realistic and consistent medical histories in simulated doctor-patient interactions. They will also interact with highly realistic whole-body simulators, which are used in medical education to develop resuscitation, airway management, and other life-saving clinical skills.
“The mini medical school is a way for the general public to experience what doctors-in-training go through,” says Maggie McDonald, PhD, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. “It’s a way for them to satisfy their curiosity about medical school and also increase their knowledge.”
With BODIES drawing thousands of visitors to the Science Center each week, Baillie says the exhibit creates a new learning opportunity for visitors to all four Carnegie Museums.
“We’re trying to teach science all the time, but sometimes it’s hard to get people’s attention,” he says. “BODIES does that. And I think that all of the museums working together is the perfect way to take advantage of that moment.”