Researching human bodies displays- why bother?

This Saturday I had the pleasure to hear the anatomist & illustrator Emily Evans talk as part of Cambridge Science Festival. Her lecture on the history of anatomical illustrations and the contemporary interest in anatomy, outside the dissection rooms, made me think one more about how one can justify, and in the same time explain to the wider public, why talking about dead bodies on display matters. What is it to be gained from this? A short answer would be that questioning past anatomical world-views and bodies can help us better understand ourselves today; from the relation between self and body, to learning how we came to see bodies as we do (and the role that once living individuals played in the process), all these relics of the past can indeed be valuable silent teachers (apropos, check the great University of Cambridge video on the ‘silent teachers‘- different focus then mine, but part of the same wider topic). Furthermore, the study of such issues is intertwined with the concepts of value and ethics, thus pushing us to reflect on our own stance towards fellow human beings.




4 years ago I had the pleasure to co-organise with my colleague Dr Valentin-Veron Toma an academic round table on the margins of ‘The Human Body’ Exhibition which was stationed in Bucharest at the time. Several researchers came together and expressed some views on the implications/effects of such displays, which were at the time published in a special issue of the Dilema magazine (thanks to the efforts and coordination of Adina Popescu). Emily’s talk reminded me of those, and I am hereby translating some of the snippets which appeared on the dedicated blog, as they showcase some of the things we can learn about our society by questioning human remains displays:

[…] The anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu chose to integrate the bodies exposed to the Antipa Natural History Museum in the broader context of the post-modern society. In his opinion, the human body becomes a fetish, a central topic for the concerns of society, a means of obtaining salvation. In a consumer society, it becomes an object of worship. As a consequence, the body gets to undergo diets, cosmetic surgery, “detoxification”, all such processes aimed at achieving perfection. The exhibited plastinated bodies get to represent the embodiment / fulfillment of the myth of “youth without old age” – the soul may/may not achieve immortality, but the body definitely gets to.

The sociologist Gabriel Jderu led the discussion further and pointed out that a feature of this consumer society is that ones/another’s human body becomes a commodity, transformable in the sensational. By analysing the body in a cultural and social perspective, he underlined how exhibiting the body, despite its translation into an aesthetic category (as in the case of this exhibition) remains tied to deviance.

The sociologist Calin Cotoi, contradicting Prof Mihailescu’s label of a post-modern event, chose to catalogue the exhibition as a product of modernity, inscribed along its values. Further, he chose to focus on a particular aspect: the exhibition and the “good citizen”. In his view, in our society the purpose of education is to form a good citizen, defined by the individual who must incorporate the values of the world and life sciences (in this case of biology/ medicine). In addition, during such exhibitions, the body is no longer “decoded” as belonging to an individual, but becomes an object, an exhibit, it is transformed into an instrument of the dominant rhetoric.

[my intervention] focused on the objectification of bodies when put on display, stripping away their humanity in favour of showcasing the materiality as embodying what makes one ‘human’. Besides, in the contemporary and unstable world the body is seen as one of the last fixed points that belong to us. Therefore, it is the most important vehicle for creating and expressing identity. Even more, it started being understood as a project that can be modified as the owner wants it, and what we witness in the media, in the fashion street blogs, and all around is a world-as-spectacle: “Dress to impress” seems to be the new motto (and this can mean anything, from modifying the weight, plastic surgery, decorating it etc.). The people are then trying to find something material to hold onto and say “this is me”. Of course, the individual motivations can be varied and sound extremely far from this, but once you take a step back and look at the big picture, the question remains: Why now? (What has changed so that the interest in the body becomes widespread?).

Furthermore, the anthropologist Alexandru Dincovici highlighted another critical issue brought to the forefront by this exhibition: the issue of an individual’s body awareness / and the way in which we come to terms with it. His speech was based on the impressions left by the visitors in the exhibition book. In the fragments that he read, the visitors expressed their enchantment in front of the exhibition, which “made them aware” of their own body’s interior. Thus, the distinction ‘lived-body’- ‘thought body’, appears as one of the fundamental implications of such exhibitions.

After this intervention, the discussion moved to the larger historical and cultural context that made possible such an exhibition of the body. The anthropologist Lucia-Terzea Ofrim spoke about the cultures of dissection and display of death throughout history, in order to highlight the concealment of death in contemporary public space (now a subject taboo), which brings about the need to talk about this (which partly explains the success of the exhibition). In this key, the exhibition gets an existential dimension, an occasion to meditate on the fate of human beings. But the face that death / the cadaver gets, through being placed in an exhibition context, is that of the aesthetic.


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