It’s a quiet Tuesday afternoon in downtown Phoenix, save for the road construction, and Chevy Humphrey is strolling the floors of the Arizona Science Center.
Through kid-friendly exhibits on house construction and ham radio and such curious puzzlers as “What’s That in Your Nose?” and “A Zit Is Born,” Humphrey, the center’s president and CEO since assuming the post two years ago, stops occasionally to discuss her center with a tone that suggests both science-nerd wonder and the hopeful boosterism of an administrator.
Many of the exhibits, she admits, are nearly as old as the angular, stone-cold center itself — a decade, come April — and they certainly look it:
analog musical instruments in the era of the iPod; multimedia that’s as low-tech as a couple of wheelchairs hooked up to a video game simulator; cathode ray tube televisions instead of modern flat-panel LCDs.
It’s against this, on a calm day only lightly sprinkled with patrons, that Humphrey considers the storm ahead.
In five days the science center opens what will be the largest, most ambitious undertaking in its history. If advance estimates are correct, more than 400,000 people will flood through the doors for the next four months.
That’s roughly equal to the number of attendees for the center any other year.
They’re coming to see a new edition of a controversial, sensational touring exhibit that has reinvigorated science and natural history museums across the globe, pulling in more than 20 million visitors (and $200 million) in the past 11 years.
They’re coming to see bodies. Corpses skinned and preserved to reveal muscles, organs, bones and ropy branches of arteries; cadavers injected with plastics so they can be repositioned riding a skateboard, jumping a hurdle, considering a chess move.
By all accounts, “Body Worlds 3,” which opened in Houston last year and just finished a sold-out four-month run in Vancouver, British Columbia, will be a behemoth for the Phoenix center.
It’s certainly a more serious exhibit than the last major touring show about the human anatomy: “Sesame Street Presents: The Body.”
“It’s going to be incredible,” she says.
“Body Worlds” is the brainchild of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who patented a technique he calls “plastination” in the late 1970s — a method that removes fluids and fats from cadavers and, once they’re impregnated with plastics like silicone, renders their body parts pliable.
Von Hagens, an academic turned self-promoter, began touring his plastinated bodies due to what Forbes magazine last year considered “scarce research funds and a taste for the spotlight.” Eleven years later, “Body Worlds” has penetrated pop culture: The latest James Bond film, “Casino Royale,” featured scenes in a a “Body Worlds” exhibit with cadavers posed playing poker.
The idea for posing the bodies in active tableaux, he says, comes from a rich tradition of anatomy artists and scientists placing subjects in natural environments, such as the 200-year-old whole-body specimens preserved with varnish in the Italian Museum of Anatomy.
Von Hagens, 63, was not available for interviews in advance of the Phoenix exhibit, though he is expected to attend the opening with his wife, Angelina Whalley, creative designer for “Body Worlds.”
It’s the posing of von Hagens’ plastinated bodies — vastly more so than stand-alone body parts like the blackened lungs of a smoker or cross-section of the brain — that has drawn criticism: the almost whimsical image of a sinewy, pop-eyed bicyclist leaning into his handlebars; the relaxed repose of a pregnant woman on the ground, the middle of her abdomen and stomach cut away to reveal the fetus curled in utero. In re-animating the corpses, so to speak, has von Hagens crossed some line of the macabre?
(Humphrey is quick to point out, to assuage the sensitive or squeamish, that plastinates related to childbirth and fetuses are contained behind a curtained-off area clearly marked at the center’s exhibit space.)
Some have accused von Hagens, and the several imitation exhibits that have popped up internationally in recent years, of violating the dignity of the deceased. Some of Arizona’s American Indian population, for example, have expressed concern about the Phoenix exhibit. (Humphrey points to anatomical exhibits already at the Arizona Science Center that disclose sensitivities to American Indians.)
“It’s acknowledged that the public display of plastinated humans will cause cultural and ethical debate,” Humphrey says. “But these debates are part of scientific education.”
And people are talking.
Jane Maienschein, a biology professor with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, says her department has been discussing the “Body Worlds 3” exhibit for some time. And her own philosophy is simple: In an age when the public is increasingly asked to have autonomy and responsibility in making medical choices for themselves, it makes sense for the public to have access to cadavers that, in the past, were restricted to the realm of medical students.
“What ‘Body Worlds’ is, there may be an entertainment value,” Maienschein says, “but it allows us access to our bodies, to anatomy. It’s another source of information — how bodies work, what does it mean to look inside the body.”
“Body Worlds,” to Maienschein as well as von Hagens, is no less than the democratization of information about our bodies.
Still, for Maienschein, the most important message for viewers to keep in mind at a “Body Worlds” exhibit is to maintain a curious but respectful attitude while experiencing it.
“Don’t go thinking it’s geewhiz and entertainment or it’s just like a movie,” she says. “People should respect that there are aspects that may be disturbing to them. They should learn from it, and not feel a giddiness or abhorrence.”
The complex matter of exploitation rears its head at the more commercial aspects surrounding “Body Worlds 3” at the Arizona Science Center. Like at the gift shop: Alongside the medical posters and plastic “Visible Man” models and “Body Worlds” coffee mugs for sale are Halloween prop skeletons, phony dismembered fingers and noses accented with fake blood, and ball caps made to resemble human brains. Is this going too far? What about the Mountainside Fitness gym chain setting up a sales and information booth outside the exhibit?
For Humphrey, there’s a more genuine exploitation she hopes to glean from “Body Worlds 3” — beyond the $100,000 or so she expects the center to earn from the tour stop, which will be reinvested into the center’s own exhibits. (“Body Worlds 3” is supported by corporate sponsorships.) She hopes it will spark greater scientific discussion in the Valley and get people talking about health. She hopes it will boost attendance and bring new traffic to the center.
And she hopes it will seed inspiration for a $25.2 million fundraising campaign the center is considering as it looks to update to face the new frontiers of science museum technology.
“We’re trying to get to a point,” she says, “where we can do science real-time.”