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A huge collection of fetuses is on display at a medical museum in Copenhagen


WARNING: Images and parts of this story might be disturbing to some people. Viewer discretion is advised.

There's a note of caution outside of "The Body Collected" exhibition at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen: "The exhibition...displays bodies and body parts from deceased human beings. The artefacts can be disturbing to watch. Medical Museion recommends that children visit the exhibition only in companionship with a guardian." The sign should be taken seriously, because through the entranceway, visitors will find themselves face to face with an extensive collection of fetuses and deceased infants.

"The Body Collected" explores the development of medicine and the changing methods of research and investigation over time. All of the artifacts have been arranged according to scale, beginning with the whole body and ending with molecules, reflecting the history of medical science as our understanding of the human body evolved. "The principle of scale draws on the materiality of the objects, but at the same time mirrors a shift in medical interest towards smaller and smaller units," explains the exhibition's catalogue.

The earliest and largest specimens in the exhibit date back to the 1700s, a time when disease was believed to be due to an imbalance in the entire body.

Matthias Saxtorph, a professor at the Danish Maternity and Nursing Foundation, founded a collection of fetuses and infants in 1978, known as the Saxtorphian Collection. The collection has been housed within the Medical Museion since 1992. Saxtorph was at the forefront of research into abnormalities that occur during fetal development, as he attempted to find scientific explanations beyond widely accepted superstitions.

Visitors may react to the exhibition differently: with interest, curiosity and fascination, or with sadness and horror. Few will remain unaffected.
"The Body Collected" catalogue

The collection includes a wide variety of deformities and defects, providing viewers with a comprehensive look at the issues that could affect a fetus during development. There's a pair of conjoined twins who were born in 1848 and could not be cared for by their poor parents. The twins, named Martha and Marie, passed away 10 days after their birth. A few glass containers nearby hold infants who suffered from Mermaid Syndrome, or sirenomelia. Their legs are fused together, resembling a mermaid's tail. Before proper research was conducted, people viewed these infants as supernatural or cursed beings.

Visitors won't find any recent fetus specimens on display, as fetuses and infants are no longer preserved in Denmark; parents aren't allowed to donate the bodies of their children to science. But as the visitors continue to move through the exhibition, they'll start to see more modern methods of preserving the human body.

The next part of the exhibition focuses on organs and body parts, specimens that isolated the location of the disease. A collection of skeletons and bones shows sunken ribs, the skull of a leper, and abnormally large craniums. The following case holds a collection of diseased and injured organs, which includes a section of a cancerous brain, the larynx from a choking victim, and an enlarged colon. The exhibition also touches on the importance of dissection, demonstrating what we're able to learn by cutting into the human body. A human head from the early 1800s, absent of any skin, hair, or fat, shows the muscles and veins of the face.

After the collections of bones and organs, the specimens once again grow smaller. In the mid 19th century, scientists became more interested in tissues and cells, thanks to advancements in microscope technology. Tissue samples allowed doctors to study live patients and their diseases as they took place. The samples were stored in hospitals both to allow doctors to double-check the diagnosis and to serve as research material.

From there, the exhibition moves into blood and its molecules. Although the specimens at this point seem fairly unrecognizable as the human body, they're similar in purpose to the earlier collections, serving as a diagnostic tool for diseases. However, while people living in 19th century went undiagnosed until the disease was in the advanced stages, these samples can be used to diagnose diseases before they even occur. Modern biobanks testify to the continued importance in collecting and storing the human body.

The last room of the exhibition holds gene chips. "The gene chips in the last room of 'The Body Collected' are among the most unobtrusive objects in the exhibition. They are negligible in size, and do not attract attention in the same way as the human specimens," reads the catalogue. But the catalogue acknowledges that the gene chips are "some of the most important objects in the exhibition," particularly as a presentation of how today's biomedical researchers study the body. The gene chip brings the investigation to the level of the genome.

Access to earlier artifacts in the museum provided the necessary foundation for the continuation of our knowledge of the human body, ultimately paving the way to the gene chips of today. So while the first few display cases may be disturbing or hard to view, the exhibition as a whole presents a clear story about the evolution of medical science and research. And it's undoubtedly important to understand what's going on inside our physical bodies.

To understand the body is to understand our possibilities and limitations.
"The Body Collected" catalogue

"The Body Collected" is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from noon to 4 p.m. Admission to the Medical Museion is approximately $12 and includes access to a number of other exhibitions in addition to "The Body Collected."

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