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Below The Surface

Thursday, May 3, 2012

OUR BODY: Questions, Curiosity and Controversy

The day finally arrived! Saturday, April 14 the doors to ECHO opened to welcome our guests to the world class exhibit, OUR BODY: The Universe Within. Hard to believe, but the idea to host this exhibit began in 2008 when we embarked upon an expansion of ECHO that was completed this year. The expansion provided us the opportunity to present a larger, more involved and extensive exhibit that had exceptional education value.  

Notes from ECHO guests
Reaction from visitors has been amazing. The thoughts from guests collected and shared on Post-it® notes each day have filled us with inspiration and joy, tears and laughter. Many emotions, many deep and heartfelt, many full of thanks, and many questions as well.

We’ve received phone calls and emails from folks too. Some curious, some worried, some wondering why an Aquarium and Science Center would host an exhibit about the human body. Some confused about the up-charge on the usual ECHO admission fee, others wondering if they can visit and enjoy ECHO without accidentally “bumping into” a body from the exhibit (don’t worry, you can’t as the exhibit hall is sectioned off from the rest of ECHO).

Thoughtful questions. Relevant questions. Welcomed questions. And we are grateful for them. 

Our goal is to provide a unique and powerful experience for the community so they can engage in a conversation about the wonders of the human body and how best to keep their own body healthy. We also recognize that hosting this exhibition comes with some controversy. While we can definitively answer questions about the origin of the bodies and how they are preserved, we hope the wider conversation about ethics, aesthetics, and donating your body to science prompts discussion across the region.   

I thought I’d share some of the more common questions received and attempt to answer them assuming that many more people may be wondering or questioning the same thing.
Linda Bowden at the entrance to the exhibit. A rare quiet moment.

Here we go…

Where did the bodies come from? The specimens in this exhibition came from China via the Anatomical Science & Technologies Foundation (ASTF) through members of the Chinese Society for Anatomical Science. Members include accredited Chinese universities, medical schools, medical institutions, research centers and laboratories. The members share a collective goal “to promote and popularize knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the science of the human body, health care and disease prevention”, among other things. 

Did the individuals consent to be in this exhibit? According to the ASTF, all donors (or their immediate family members or authorized proxy) are clearly told that the donated bodies will be used for medical research and educational purpose (including appropriate preservation and public education). In China, as in the U.S., donor wishes and family identities are kept private, and therefore we can never trace the exact journey an individual has taken to find its way into this exhibit.  We feel confident, however, that the specimens in the exhibition at ECHO were acquired via lawful means and means that are in compliance with methods that are also acceptable in the U.S. 
Dr. Stephen Leffler from UVM College of Medicine walks the crowd through the exhibit.

Why did you choose this exhibit over other exhibits such as Body Worlds or Bodies…the Exhibition? We felt this exhibition put forth the most scientific and anatomically based and respectful presentation of the specimens. This exhibition, in our opinion, presented an exceptional amount of science, biology and health messaging and allowed for a greater opportunity to partner with UVM College of Medicine to expand the learning/teaching potential of the exhibit. See photos from two of the OUR BODY Speaker Series events: Pipes and Tubes and In the Nick of Time where experts from UVM College of Medicine walk guests through the exhibit and speak about their area of expertise. 

Dr. Elizabeth Ezerman from UVM College of Medicine talks about the central nervous system
Isn’t there controversy surrounding this exhibit and others like it? Yes there is. And we were aware of these questions and controversies which actually helped us decide on this particular exhibit over the other ones. We called previous host sites of this exhibit such as The Orlando Science Center, Detroit Science Center, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Oklahoma Science Museum, Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, Witte Museum, Mid America Science Museum, Whitaker Center, among others, and they, like us, felt confident in the validity and accuracy of the information provided. 

Why are they specimens so thin? When the body goes through the plastination process, the liquid in the body is replaced with a polymer, or plastic. Once the liquid is removed the body is much thinner since 70+ percent of the body is liquid. 

Do the specimens smell? No. There is no odor whatsoever.

Gerianne Smart, ECHO's Marketing Director, spoke about some of these issues recently on the Mark Johnson Show on WDEV Radio. To listen to the radio interview click here, you can hear her around the 2 minute mark.

Many generous people decide to donate their body or organs to science every day. This generosity has allowed medical science to advance our understanding of our “humanness” and create advances in medicine and technology that have helped millions of people to have longer, healthier lives. 
The questions asked, the thoughtful emails received and phone conversations are welcomed. Each one provides a new level of understanding, another avenue of research and education and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity for dialogue around issues of great importance. 

We welcome the continued conversation around this exhibit and invite you to come and view the exhibit for yourself. It is our hope that you will obtain not only a greater understanding of your own human body, but a deeper appreciation of the importance of medical science and research in the advancement of the health of our species.

Phelan Fretz, Ph. D., Executive Director
ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain

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