Wednesday, 1 April 2009


Yesterday I saw Bodies: The Exhibition at the Ambassador in Dublin. So bodies have been on my mind lately. The specimens on display are real, and the way the exhibition is marketed it is considered to be a teaching aid. In the words of the organizers: "This method of preservation creates a specimen that will not decay. This offers thousands of unique teaching possibilities for educators at all levels, including medical professionals, archeologists and other scientists."

With current technology, I do rather wonder whether they needed real bodies, other than for the sensational aspect. And they way that they have prepared some of the specimens, such as the arteries, is with a process called 'corrosive casting', which means that they fill the vessels with a liquid that sets and they then corrode the arteries around them, leaving the polymer in the shape of the vessels. So what you're seeing is a polymer specimen in the shape of an original, rather like what they did to reveal the bodies under the ash at Pompei. Other specimens are actual bodies treated in a special preservation process.

Very few of the bodies were female, all of the others were male; it is interesting that the male bodies were represented in active poses, playing tennis, volleyball, conducting an orchestra. The female specimens were used to illustrate adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and the female reproductive system (and another raising her arms in praise of the heavens). In other words, I found an interesting gender discourse at work in the exhibition.

I did find the message of the exhibition a bit uncertain. For example, they displayed specimens of a smoker's lungs and then placed a perspex box beside it for the cigarette boxes of visitors who have decided to give up. Then other points urged visitors to appreciate the complexity of the body and to begin to treat their own body better. But I'm not sure at all that this is how and why the individual items were displayed. As an account of the body, each component individually works, but I feel that holistically a convenient message was imposed that feels a tad preachy.

What I really wanted to know was who they were; who were they playing tennis and volleyball with? And most important of all, what piece of music was the man with the baton in hand conducting? Surely, no matter how complex your body is, it's what you do with it that really compels.

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To this end, I think that the really marvellous exhibition 'Assembling Bodies' at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is a good deal more successful. It runs until November 2010 and I intend to return. It covers an extremely wide range of issues. Organized around seven thematic headings, it comprises both artifacts and art objects; the whole exhibition fits into one room on the second floor, so it is easy to take in at a visit but provides enough to keep one ruminating. The thematic headings include: Assembly of Bodies; Measuring and Classifying; Art and Anatomy; The Body Multiple; Extending and Distributing; Genealogies and Genomes; Body and Landscape. A very good catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition. Well worth a visit if you're in Cambridge.

* * *

And as if the gods were conspiring to keep me thinking bodies, I have just picked up a copy of this new collection of essays on the theme of Dante and the human body, which comes out of the UCD annual Lectura Dantis (in this case, held between 2003-2004). It comprises: Simon A. Gilson, 'The Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body in the Commedia'; Vivian Nutton, 'Dante, Medicine and the Invisible Body'; Joseph Ziegler, 'The Scientific Context of Dante's Embryology'; Simone de Angelis, 'Sanatio and Salvatio: "Body" and Soul in the Experience of Dante's Afterlife'; Manuele Gragnolati, 'Nostalgia in Heaven: Embraces, Affection and Identity in the Commedia'; Elizabeth Mozzillo-Howell, 'Divina Anatomia: Laying Bare Body and Soul in the Commedia'; Vittorio Montemaggi, ' "La rosa in che il verbo divino carne si fece": Human Bodies and Truth in the Poetic Narrative of the Commedia'; Oliver Davies, 'World and Body: A Study in Dante's Cosmological Hermeneutics'. Have already looked at Mozillo-Howell's very interesting essay (thoroughly resonant for the Bodies exhibition), and of course Montemaggi's very excellent essay.

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