When Imagine Exhibitions announced REAL BODIES at Bally’s, our first thought was: Why do we need two?
Bodies … the Exhibition at the Luxor had already carved out a niche for human anatomy exhibits featuring dissected cadavers. But what you might not know is that Tom Zaller, CEO and president of Imagine Exhibitions, helped catapult the Luxor installation’s success.
He’s since moved on to do the same with REAL BODIES, with more bodies and a narrative that goes deeper than your average anatomical study. We hounded Zaller down for a tour, complete with his commentary on each room of the installation. Here are our top highlights from the new tourist attraction.
Keeping Them Fresh
Upon viewing our first body, we had to ask about the preservation process. It all begins with plastination. As Zaller explains it, fluids are removed from the exhibition’s bodies, which are then placed in an acetone bath for dehydration purposes. “Then it’s put into a bath of liquid silicone and put under a vacuum,” he explains. “Acetone turns into a gas and the polymer is pushed into a cellular level. So what you’re left with in the end, is really a silicone cast, if you will, of a real human body specimen.” Zaller also mentions every body used was unclaimed.
REAL BODIES begins with some fresh air—maybe too much air—as a fleet of 24 fans blast into your face when you enter the “Breathe” room. An art installation created by local artists, the novel greeting isn’t there solely for visual appeal. Breathing is what connects us all; it’s “a willful, defiant act of our unconscious,” as a plaque on the wall reads. “It declares ‘I am’ again and again through the cycle of minutes and years.”
The exhibit explains how the respiratory system works, but also ties a spiritual connection to breathing. “We talk about, culturally, what the significance of breath is,” Zaller says. “For Christians, it’s the Holy Spirit. For Jews, there’s sort of five different parts manifesting God: life, soul, personality, mind [and] individuality. And for Taoists, it’s the chi. You always hear about the chi in your body. It’s bigger than just a breath.”
One of the most jarring displays in “Breathe” is a set of two pairs of lungs—a gray, healthy pair juxtaposed with a pair of smoker’s lungs, which are so black they look like wet stones. It makes you think about what you’re putting into your body, which is exactly what Zaller says the exhibit should do.
Every body in “Move” looks like it’s hitting the gym, as the room gives attendees a look at the impressive muscle expansion of humans in motion. Examining a runner’s muscle span is one of the most interesting and visually appealing displays. There’s so much going on inside the body, so many muscles at work at once, that it’ll convince you to buy a new pair of running shoes. To further elaborate on how the muscle groups work together, there’s an interactive art installation of bike wheels.
The “Think” room explores one of the most complex computer networks on the planet: our brains. Looking at the back of one body, you can see how nerve bundles rope down the spine, and what a pinched nerve really looks like. It helps you sympathize with those who’ve had back injuries.
What Becomes of Us?
“We’ve gone through breathing, eating, moving, blood flow and thinking. But now I want to talk to you a little bit about death,” Zaller says. “About 51 percent of people in the world believe there’s some kind of afterlife. So we wanna knock on death’s door.”
Zaller knocks on a black door, literally labeled “Death’s Door,” and we’re led down a dark hallway, with a glimmer of light at the end. Quotes surrounding the circumstances of death line the walls. It’s a cold yet fantastic reenactment of “crossing over” to the other side.
A re-creation of an ossuary, a catacomb-like wall of skulls, greets us at the end. While the bones on display are fake, the wall is meant to inspire conversations on how other cultures honor the dead. For instance, people in Ghana bury the deceased in fantasy coffins—for example, if you were a pilot, you’d be buried in an airplane-shaped coffin.
After knocking on death’s door, REAL BODIES attendees come back to life to explore the reproductive system in the “Love” room. “We’re animals like the rest of the animals on the planet,” Zaller says. “Those animals reproduce [solely] to reproduce. We fall in love … We’re the only animal in the world that does that.”
When you’re not inspecting reproductive organs and pelvic cavities in this room, you can do something a little more romantic, such as dropping a love letter into a glass-encased box. Or, leave a lock on its life-size heart installation, inspired by Paris’ Pont des Arts Bridge.
“Beginnings” is one of REAL BODIES’ most powerful rooms. It’s a great segue from the “Love” room, since it’s all about the in-utero stage. Seeing embryos evolve from 26 days to 56 days hits you hard in a “this is a little, miniature person!” kind of way. In another series of displays, fetal specimens in water jars are colored with a red dye to show how bone cartilage grows over time.
Among the clinical displays of organs in the digestive system such as the intestines, stomach and esophagus, the “Hunger” room features a wall that calls back to our primal ancestors. “When we go to restaurants, when we go to grocery stores, it’s all prepared for us. But 1,000 years ago, a couple hundred years ago, most people lived off the land. We wanted to bring some of that here, like with animal bones, stones [and] the earth …” Zaller says of the wall.
The hallway leading to the “Rhythm” room features several hearts in glass cases, with the red of the blood vessel-covered organs popping against the dark, black walls. You’ll see the muscular fibers, the ventricles, and the chambers of this beautiful organ as you make your way through. Once you enter Rhythm, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Your only light source stems from the vibrant glow of lit-up cases exhibiting millions of blood vessels braided through arms, hands and heads. “They’re very fragile,” Zaller says. “There’s way more [in the human body] than the [preservation] process allows to keep perfect.”
You’ll find illustrations of the Mayan’s ancient blood rituals along the walls of Rhythm. It’s yet another opportunity for Zaller to explain the context behind the clinical. “Bloodletting was a part of [their] culture,” he says. “You don’t think about these kind of crazy things, but they do. So we wanna show you the beauty of it.”
The last stop of REAL BODIES promotes rest and recovery. Some specimens on display are dissected to show surgical augmentations to the body, from a plate in the arm to a metal ball-and-socket in the pelvis. You can also see how diseases such as tuberculosis and pulmonary heart congestion affect the organs—and the displays make the issues easy to visualize.
When you leave REAL BODIES, there’s one last display that encourages you to donate your body. “People don’t think about it,” Zaller says. “But once you see something like this, you realize hey, I learned something. Maybe somebody can learn something from me.”