06/10/2013 12:07 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Body Worlds exhibit an amazing, sobering journey through us, underneath

EDMONTON - Come to the Body Worlds exhibit, look at plastinated people without their skin on, and any initial squeamishness is — within minutes — subsumed by sheer fascination.

It's who we are in all our forms, put together and reverse engineered like a garage with all the components on the shelves beside a fully assembled machine that is as durable as it is fragile — the ultimate body shop.

"We'll see people bring their little kids through, and the kids tend to be just as fascinated and learn just as much as the adults do," said Mike Steger of Edmonton's Telus World of Science, which is hosting the exhibit until mid-October.

"We're going to tell you the story of the cycle of life: the human body from birth to childhood to youth and old age, and everything in between."

Steger calls it the ultimate anatomy lesson. "You can look at in books, you can see it on TV, (but) it's not the same as coming through."

It's a one-hour stroll among the display cases, longer if you want to go back and reread the information boards or listen again to audio recordings.

It's the good, the bad and the downright sobering.

The signature pieces are 20 models of plasticized cadavers showing the intricate interplay of muscle and bone. There is a hitter swatting a baseball, a skateboarder, a pair ice dancing, and a hockey player (in an Edmonton Oilers helmet) barrelling over an opponent.

They are preserved through a process called plastination, in which the bodily fluids and soluble fats are replaced by fluid plastics that are later hardened.

The muscles remain red, the fat is white.

There is a brain as it sits in the skull and a brain on a table with a spinal cord trailing behind.

There is a display of the intricate web of nerve endings running throughout the body resembling a futuristic Spider-Man suit.

There are examples of how all the organs are tightly packed into the chest cavity. There's a place for everything, even the long, winding intestines. No wasted space. Nature's perfect pack job.

Then there are the things that go wrong.

Any parent whose teen has started smoking may want to show him or her the display case with the shrivelled, blackened lung resembling a charred chicken breast left too long on the barbecue.

There are hearts with hemorrhages and blockages. There's a normal spine and a scoliosis spine bent like a twisted stick you might find on a nature hike.

There are examples of tumours, a liver fatally marbled by disease, ball joints and hip replacements, metal screws in legs and ankles, layers of fat pushing and displacing organs.

There are hardened arteries and time-lapse computer mock-ups of strokes in action. There are cross-sections of scarred hearts, hemorrhaged hearts, diseased hearts and hearts with life-saving devices.

"When people come through this exhibit, everybody can sort of identify with some part of it. Everybody has got an ache or a pain or some issue," said Steger.

Unforgettable are the two brains side by side: one a spongy, healthy, firm, normal brain, the other a desiccated, crenellated Alzheimer's brain — the physical manifestation of a disease that robs someone, and their loved ones, of so much.

Given that the exhibits are real people who have willingly donated themselves to science, there is no touching and no photography.

It is not without controversy given that it must educate while remaining respectful of personal dignities and beliefs.

For example, the area on the start of life — the fetuses in various stages of development — is partially curtained off to ensure only those who wish to see enter and those who prefer not to don't just wander in.

The focus is on preventative health, things you can do to stay active.

"We're going to leave you with a healthy to-do list," said Steger.

The exhibit is formally titled The Cycle of Life and is one of nine such Body Worlds travelling exhibits around the world. Others focus on certain aspects of lifestyle or on body parts like the heart.

The exhibits have been around for 18 years and have been seen by more than 36 million.

Those who attend come to look at strangers but end up rediscovering themselves.

And afterward likely go for a salad and a workout.


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