A Pregnant Pause: An Unconventional View of Prenatal Development


I'm 15 weeks pregnant. And since I haven’t had an ultrasound yet (3 more weeks to wait!), my fiancé Jason and I got pretty excited about an exhibit taking us through the spectrum of human life at the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s called "Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life." "Body Worlds" highlights real human specimens literally stripped down to their muscles, organs and bones! Freaky, right? The museum featured two previous "Body Worlds" exhibits in 2005 and 2007, but this is the first time the exhibit is focusing on the human life cycle, from conception through death. Within the exhibit is a collection of preserved embryos and fetuses at various stages of development. Offering a window into the womb, we thought, “Nice! We could see exactly what our baby looks like.” Up until this point, we had been relying on my "What to Expect When You’re Expecting" app to give us some sense of the size of the baby. For example, last week the baby was as big as a naval orange and this week it’s now the size of . . . an avocado! Needless to say, we were both tired of picturing our baby as a piece of produce, so we packed up and set out on the trek from our home in Oak Park to the museum’s home in Hyde Park. Almost two hours later (Thank you, Chicago Transit Authority) we finally made it! Walking into the "Body Worlds" exhibit, I felt almost like I was walking into a sacred place. A hush immediately fell over the visitors. The dimmed lights and black walls created a somber atmosphere, set off only by the bright spotlights that showcased the specimens.

One of the first things I noticed was a sign on display about the adult body donors. Apparently, during their lives, these people had agreed that upon their deaths their bodies could be used for the sake of science. The German-based Institute of Plastination uses an elaborate chemical process created by Gunther von Hagens to preserve the bodies permanently as an educational resource. Museum facilitator Jeremiah Myles told me later that 30,000 people worldwide have signed up to be donors. “Before this exhibit opened 64 people in Illinois were signed up,” he said. Almost immediately Jason noticed a small display with three different placentas inside. At the end of the display was a 14-week-old fetus- the closest to the age of our baby. 

It was smaller than I would have thought. In this case, the bones were highlighted with a dark ink so you could see each tiny one. The exhibit progressed through more stages of development. As excited as I initially was, actually seeing these specimens up close and personal bothered me a little. 

I always picture my baby swimming around quite happily in the warm waterbed that is my uterus. But these babies looked so sad, frail and sickly. Yes, I understand that they’re dead, but that just made me think that maybe we shouldn’t be looking at them anyway. I overheard Plainfield resident Alecia Preston, 39, tell her young son that the tiny bodies he was seeing weren’t real. I asked her why. “He has a 7-month-old brother at home,” she said. “I don’t want him thinking about dead babies.” All the adult specimens had their skin removed, and as graphic as that sounds, it was easier to look at them than at the babies. They had no real expressions. If you really wanted to you could pretend they weren’t, at one time or another, living and breathing people. But, with the babies, you saw each little wrinkle in their skin, the fine hair covering their tiny bodies; countless questions came to mind:

 Who were they? Who were their parents? Most importantly, how did they get here? The little bodies were donated by mothers to the Institute of Plastination, according to the museum. There is another compelling view of prenatal development in the "YOU: The Experience" exhibit at the museum. This grouping devoted to life before birth came to the museum nearly 80 years ago. In an essay for the informalscience.org online research community, Barry Aprison, former MSI director of science and technology, said the original specimens found here were collected in the early 1930’s by a medical resident named Helen Button who worked at Cook County Hospital (now John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital). The embryos and fetuses were lost in miscarriages due to the malnutrition and poor health of their mothers, who came from the most poverty-stricken areas of Chicago. The specimens came to the museum after the 1933 Century of Progress Chicago World's Fair and have been on display since then. "Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life" runs through September 5. - blog by Jaclyn A. Gray, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University


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