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Exhibition gives a look inside the human body

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If an anatomy textbook came to life, it might look like “Bodies … The Exhibition,” a show that opened Saturday at South Street Seaport in Manhattan.

The exhibit features 22 human bodies and 260 specimens preserved for display in a 30,000-square-foot space. Highlights include skinless cadavers in a football player’s pose, another throwing a baseball and one body holding hands with its own removed skeleton — all to show how muscles, tendons and bones work together.

“This is just mind-blowing,” said Madeline Michaels of New York. “I feel absolutely grateful that this is here.”

Michaels, 44, a licensed therapist, said she had heard about the exhibit from an online group of colleagues and decided she would be among the first.

At the exhibit on Saturday, she sat beside one of the displays — a body in a basketball free-throw pose — and traced its contours with her eyes for several minutes.

“Every day, I massage people. Every day, I put my hands on people. When you see it three-dimensional, it gives you that much more appreciation,” she said afterward.

“Obviously, the bodies are posed to give them a more approachable appearance. So there’s a lot of life in the room,” said John Zeller, who co-curated the exhibit with Judy Geller. “You're seeing this mirror image of yourself.”

Divided into displays that focus on the body’s different systems — muscular, skeletal, circulatory, reproductive and respiratory — the exhibit features a variety of organs, as well as diseases that affect them.

A smoker’s carbon-colored lungs are placed side-by-side with a healthy pair; dark spots of a stroke victim’s brain are shown beside a normal one, extreme cases of cancer show up along with healthy specimens.

One part of the exhibit shows an entire circulatory system, minus any other body part, suspended in liquid and illuminated against a dark background, creating a sort of 3D silhouette created by blood vessels.

Another area of the exhibit simulates the view an MRI scan provides cross-sectional views of a body by physically slicing it and separating it in a display case.

'Seeing inside yourself'

Still another portion — complete with a warning to exhibit-goers and a disclaimer that the specimens were obtained through natural deaths — shows fetuses in various stages of development, as well as one in utero and another of conjoined twins.

Organizers say they wanted to highlight the body’s inner workings in a new way as an educational tool and not provide a “freak show.”

“We're hoping to create a whole new generation who can converse about their bodies,” said Roy Glover, the medical director for Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions and retired anatomy professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

Glover said the specimens were obtained from a laboratory at Dalian Medical University in China that preserved them using a process where water is removed and replaced with a polymer that turns them rubber-like.

The show has come under fire from human rights advocates who charge that the bodies and organs may have been illegally obtained through the Chinese government. Objections over the New York show echo similar accusations of exploitation directed at other popular "corpse shows" which have attracted millions of visitors in Asia, Europe and Los Angeles over the last several years.

Not intended to be sensational, the "Bodies" exhibit nonetheless provided fantastical views of the body’s inner workings.

“It’s more calming than I thought I would be,” said Randy L. Kaplan, 39, of Merrick, N.Y. “It's like opening a window and seeing inside of yourself.”