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Gross anatomy |

Young Star

Gross anatomy

- Maria Jorica B. Pamintuan -

MANILA, Philippines - The South Street Seaport district is an oasis in the bustling city of Manhattan. Against a backdrop of 19th century architecture and the East River lapping against the pier, the Seaport is good for a change of pace in the city that never sleeps. There are many shops and sights to see along the harbor, and places to just sit and relax. It’s not exactly a place you’d expect to find cadavers.

Seems like a scenario straight out of an episode of CSI New York, doesn’t it? But right at the heart of this historic district is a place filled with real human bodies and body parts that draws crowds of visitors every day.

No, those visitors aren’t sickos or sociopaths, they’re perfectly normal people. In fact, many of them are students and scholars. What they’re flocking to see is the Bodies Exhibition, a small museum of human remains, all of which have been carefully and respectfully preserved using liquid silicone rubber.

Though the idea of looking at dead people may be shocking, the exhibit is nothing if not scientific. It’s like textbook illustrations in 3D. The specimens look almost like wax figures – beautiful, really. No matter how squeamish a person, the fascination will definitely overcome the revulsion or the apprehension.

Of all the displays, the full-sized forms scattered around the exhibit are the most eye-catching, and perhaps the only ones that are bit scary. All the bodies have been stripped of skin, and are in various stages of “undress.” Some bodies are skeletons, some are just tendon and muscle, while others are combinations - one side of a body may show the lungs and heart, and the other side may show the rib cage that protects those vital organs.

There are figures representing all body types – tall, short, fat, thin, athletic – to show how the 0.1% difference in genes creates greatly varied physical features. Some bodies are posed to highlight how muscles and organs look when executing movements like running or shooting a basketball.

In standing next to these presentations, it’s interesting to see how the various body parts work together as a team, but at the same time, there is that fear that these bodies will suddenly come back to life and start moving.

The rest of the Bodies Exhibition is far less scary. The exhibit is divided into separate rooms for every body system. In each room, body parts in a particular system are displayed and their functions, explained. 

Most surreal of these is the Circulatory System room, where human veins and arteries are dyed and suspended in fluid. These circulatory canals retain their shape and organization even when removed from the body. Imagine a thick network of plant roots or coral clustered into the outline of a human. The extent of these canals, the distance blood travels in the body to keep us alive is mind-boggling.

The Digestive System room presents each digestive organ separately, and grouped together. Surprisingly, most of the digestive organs look very much like the chicken and pork innards that we skewer and barbecue, only bigger (and no, there really is no way to put that delicately!). Gives new meaning to the saying, “You are what you eat.”

Of course, the Bodies Exhibition wouldn’t be complete without a Nervous System room, where there are brains of all sizes on display, along with spinal cords, and blown-up pictures of neurons.

In the Respiratory System room, what else could there be but lungs? Healthy lungs, smoker’s lungs, cancerous lungs – lungs of every color, from bright red to a mottled black, are displayed right next to each other. Every smoker in the world (ahem, Mr. President!), should definitely visit this room. A peek at lungs that look worse than a New York City sidewalk might help kick the habit.

Along that line, pro-choice women might change their beliefs when they enter the Reproductive System room. Adjacent to the glass cases filled with male and female bits is a darkened area with glass canisters lining the wall. In each container is a little red dot – a dot that gets bigger and more defined with each canister. A 19-day old dot already has a face, a life, no matter what scientists say.

The dot has no bones yet, though. But the bone room in the exhibit has a lot of them. From the three tiny ear bones to the longest bone in the body, the femur, the Skeletal System room is complete. Although, what’s new with bones? There are plenty of bones in other museums. The ones in the Bodies Exhibition just happen to be newer.

A special area near the end of the exhibit is by far more interesting than skeletons. All of the bits and pieces that didn’t quite fit into the theme of the other rooms were put together in one room to finish off the tour of the museum.

The most amazing (and perhaps, disturbing) of these is the vertical cross section of an obese woman, and the horizontal cross section of a man. Seeing the fat wrapped around the woman’s heart and muscles is enough to make you swear off fried foods for a month, while the cross section of the man is like a real-life MRI.

But one of the best parts of the whole experience actually lies at the very end, in front of a tour guide saying goodbye to all the visitors. On a table, looking extremely like a paperweight is a brain. An actual human brain. Right next to it is a liver. These are the only specimens you can touch in the whole exhibit.

Imagine touching a brain, cupping it in your hands. It’s something only doctors used to be able to do.

And that is the point of the Bodies Exhibition – to introduce the general public to the beauty and wonder that is the human body, a world that used to be closed to anyone who didn’t work in the medical profession.

Gruesome as it may seem, the exhibit is geared towards educating people about their bodies, to show how vices can harm (and probably scare people into stopping bad habits), and to show that deep down inside (well, not that deep, actually; skin-deep is more like it), we are all the same.

Seeing the human body up-close and personal is a great experience. It’s a bit on the macabre side, but the exhibit is not a reminder that death is inevitable. It is a celebration of humanity and life. 

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For more information on the Bodies Exhibition, visit

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