By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Dec. 6, 2016
WEST PALM BEACH — On their way to the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium one recent morning, 11-year-old Sydney Thurston asked her mother if maybe they were going to see cartoons.
“No, sweetheart,” Tesha Thurston told her daughter, “these are real people.”
You can’t say young Sydney hadn’t been warned.
Drive past the museum entrance on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach and a large black and white sign invites you to visit “Actual Human Bodies.”
Inside, you’ll find “Our Body: The Universe Within,” a startling, intriguing and strangely humbling exhibit of a dozen actual human bodies, 10 men and two women, preserved and dissected to reveal their anatomy.
You’ll find a skeleton posed on an exercise bike.
You’ll find a man, nervous system exposed, pondering a chess board.
You’ll find one poised to kick a soccer ball.
You’ll find 200 additional specimens in cases – hands and feet; tibia and femur; knee, shoulder and elbow joints; a pelvis and a spinal column.
You’ll find entire human bodies exposed and explained in six different anatomical displays.
And you’ll find out you are amazing.
“This is one of the most popular and most riveting traveling exhibitions on the museum circuit,” says Lew Crampton, the museum’s chief executive officer. “Normally, only doctors and scientists are allowed to see this extraordinary in-depth look at the human anatomy, which makes this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It also makes this more than a little daring. Last year’s winter exhibit, “Dinosaurs Around The World,” featured animatronic reptiles, life-size and roaring – but safely fake.
The exhibit has not been without controversy. In 2009, the exhibition was shut down by a court in France after human rights activists called it offensive and claimed the bodies used were those of Chinese death-row prisoners.
“We had a long discussion,” concedes Kate Arrizza, the museum’s chief operating officer. “We had a lot of questions. We were researching it for years and everyone here was comfortable with the exhibit.”
“Our Body: The Universe Within,” developed by the Anatomical Sciences & Technologies Foundation in Hong Kong, has traveled the world since 2005. Science center staff reviewed affidavits that persuaded them the bodies on display came from accredited Chinese medical schools and foundations to whom the remains were legally donated by a will or family member.
The bodies were preserved through a process called “polymer impregnation,” during which the water and fats are removed and the remains infused with a reactive plastic that hardens after they’ve been positioned. Only the eyeballs, which cannot be preserved, are not real.
Both Jupiter Medical Center and Palm Healthcare Foundation are presenting sponsors of the exhibit and plan to provide doctors to periodically discuss anatomy.
If there’s one aspect of “Our Body” that might prove troubling, it’s the prenatal exhibit, and the museum has sectioned it off with a sign at the entrance: “We realize this content may be too intense for some visitors,” it notes, and asks for respect.
Beyond the sign, you’ll find the body of a baby who succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, conjoined twins, and jars containing both embryos and fetuses at eight weeks and three, four and five months’ of age.
The effect is more sad than shocking. After all, the adults in the exhibit had a life. These infants didn’t. And yet, Arrizza says, visitors’ reaction since the exhibit opened in October has been entirely positive.
“We haven’t had one complaint,” she says, “and no one’s been nauseous.”
On opening weekend, held Oct. 22-23, the South Florida Science Center saw attendance jump 138 percent over last year’s opening attendance for the “Dinosaurs” exhibit, says Arrizza.
The exhibit runs through April 23.
“This has blown every other exhibit we’ve hosted out of the water,” Arrizza said. “People are coming back.”
Among them was Tesha Thurston, back again on Halloween morning with the massage class she teaches at Palm Beach Academy of Health & Beauty.
“My daughter was scared at first,” she recalled, “but as soon as she saw the whole body, she was fascinated.”
She bent forward for a closer look at the red and lacy filigree of veins and capillaries that make up a human being’s vascular system.
“Part of me wants to believe it’s fake,” she marveled. “But I know it’s real.”