The Unborn in Chicago: Creating Spaces for Public Interaction with Scientific “Specimens”

Please follow me on a brief online journey.  Go to http://www.msichicago.org/whats-here/exhibits/you/the-exhibit/.  This is the website for “You!  The Experience,” which is an interactive exhibit currently housed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (CMSI).  From a competition in relaxation to a huge projection of a virtual heart that beats in time with yours, the exhibit is meant to guide visitors through activities and displays about the human mind, body, and spirit.  I visited this exhibit for the second time last weekend and experienced a visceral segment of the space that I had missed during my first visit in October.  In a dark, almost silent room set aside from the general buzz of the exhibit’s core is a section called Prenatal Development.

Once you arrive at the website cited above, click on the square box titled, “Your Beginning.”  Scroll down to the bottom of that page and find Prenatal Development.  Before clicking on the link to its page, note the brief description of this section of the You! exhibit:  “The beloved Museum exhibit of prenatal specimens returns in a stunning presentation.”  Keep these words in mind as you go ahead and follow the link to the exhibit’s webpage.  Though the image provided on the page does help you imagine it, you need some extra details to know what it is like to actually walk through the exhibit.  The entrance is a wide, square doorway that features a large white sign that simply reads, Prenatal Development.  You can go left or right at the sign, but it is assumed that left is the entrance and right is the exit.  Aside from the entrance sign, no other text can be found in the womb-shaped, black room that houses the 24 clear box containers, where real human embryos and fetuses ranging from 28 days to 38 weeks are silhouetted in soft white spotlights.  The lack of text at the exhibit’s entrance makes the visitor unaware of the fact that these embryos and fetuses are real.  As I walked slowly from fetus to fetus, crouching to see the details of their fingernails, skull-shapes, wrinkled lips, and genitals, my thoughts became increasingly troubled.

But it was not until I reached the final fetus, a 38 week-old still-born, that I turned to the young married couple directly beside me and in a panicked tone asked:  “Are these real babies?”  They seemed surprised at my voice—the way it pierced the silence of the room—but whispered “yes” as if to calm me down.  Their answer left me baffled.  I kneeled for another 20 seconds or so (not enough time, it felt) in front of that full-grown baby fetus and stared at the details of its seemingly perfect (though obviously broken) body.  Whose baby was this?  What kind of parent would memorialize their baby in this way?  Did the parents hold a funeral?  Did they get to mourn?  Did they give consent?  What about the baby?  What kind of consent can a baby give?  Is its soul at rest, despite the fact that its body is sterilized and preserved in a glass container?  Could it have imagined that its body would be a “specimen”—the subject of hundreds of thousands of visitors’ gazes?  Most disturbing to me was the absence of text that might have allowed space for such questions to be asked—to validate the social, cultural, religious, and deeply personal concerns of the exhibit’s visitors.  Instead, the exhibit ends as it begins; through the wide doorway, I was dumped back into the commotion of the larger You! exhibit.

Experiencing Prenatal Development online is much different than experiencing it in person.  The website consists of an image and two brief paragraphs, one of which actually explains that the exhibit’s fetuses were donated to the CMSI in the 1930s during the Great Depression; that the babies died because of accidents or natural causes; and that the researcher who collected the fetuses (Dr. Helen Button) obtained permission from the parents of “these specimens” to use them as teaching tools.  We also learn online that the exhibit was originally displayed in 1939 and that its current design is a new interpretation meant “to allow quiet reflection upon Your Beginning.”  What did the original exhibit look like?  Were the parents of “these specimens” still alive when it was first displayed?  Did they tour through it?  Did they leave a token of adornment or memory, like visitors to a grave might?  I understand that questions like these must irritate scientists who feel that they must constantly justify the ethicality of their work.  While I sympathize with this frustration, I do not think it is a good enough reason to leave out a space for questions like these to be asked, contemplated, processed, argued, irritated, negotiated, and discussed.

In their 2001 book, Acting in an Uncertain World:  An Essay on Technical Democracy, Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthes discuss conflicts between experts and lay people with regard to public participation in research and knowledge-making.  They devote their second chapter to the problems of “secluded research,” or our culture’s tendency to push experts into isolated corners—or laboratories—where they are unable to effectively interact with larger public groups (or lay people).  “Shut away in their laboritories,” the authors explain, “the scientists quite simply ignore the concerned groups, first by erasing them, silencing them, and then by not listening to them when they speak.  They reduce a group, with its experience, knowledge, practices, methods of investigations, and ways of living in its environment, to non-existence” (94).

As I read these words for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the Prenatal Development exhibit and all of the visceral questions and thoughts that emerged for me from the exhibit, but that had no space where they could be asked or spoken.  Even as a semi-expert in rhetorical and cultural inquiry, the exhibit silenced my contribution to the topic, making it instead a closed-off space for the public presentation of “specimens” (a word I don’t have space to grapple with here, though I’m tempted).  I am frustrated by the lack of discursive space in this exhibit.  If I, as a semi-expert on language and culture, felt frustrated, then I can only imagine how other (less expert) lay persons must feel upon experiencing the exhibit.  What do they think?  Are they shocked?  Do they know the fetuses are real?  Do they imagine them as small plastic models?  Do they wonder about the parents of the unborn humans?  I want to encourage the CMSI to open spaces within which non-specialists can share thoughts, ask questions, and make recommendations for their exhibits, especially when it deals with such a controversial matter.  Otherwise, I feel many lay persons will leave the exhibit without thinking at all… without knowing that questions should even be asked.

“Yes, laypersons can and must intervene in the course of scientific research, joining their voices with those of the people we call specialists.”

-Callon et al., page 70

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Public Rhetorics. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Unborn in Chicago: Creating Spaces for Public Interaction with Scientific “Specimens”

  1. Allie K. says:

    Interesting article, very well written. I’ve never seen the exhibit, but I imagine the experience is similar to viewing the “Bodies” exhibit that toured Cincy recently. I can definitely empathize with some of the moral implications of even displaying such an exhibit…but think about all of the questions it generated from you. Did seeing those babies at their various stages of gestation make you think about abortion? Or about the argument that is ongoing about the “age of viability?” I think the point of this exhibit is to evoke emotion and reflection. Remind us all that these fetuses are actually tiny people.

  2. Laurie says:

    I visited the Prenatal Development exhibit earlier today and can’t get it out of my mind. As a Chicago resident since childhood, I have seen these fetuses numerous times. Back in the 70’s they were displayed in large jars of whatever liquid is used to preserve them. They were in a sterile room, lined up in chronological order on a long shelf. I do think the new exhibit is a much more respectful way of displaying the stages of fetal development. I agree that it is somewhat disturbing, but as the previous commenter stated, I believe that is by design to make us think, feel, and reflect.There is a sign off to the side of the entrance to the room that explains that the fetuses are real and how they were acquired. I believe it is the same information from the website that you referenced in your article above. I also think that the less is more approach to this exhibit allows parents to answer their children’s questions in a way that they feel is appropriate based on religious beliefs, age, etc., without any outside bias.
    I found your article thought provoking and enjoyed reading it, thanks.

  3. taylo206 says:

    Thanks for your comment, Laurie. Yes, the ability to incite such reflections is really powerful and worth writing about!

  4. jen says:

    I saw this exhibit as a small child not terribly long after my own mom had a late miscarriage, and I remember very well her inability to walk through, though my dad and I did. I have seen it many times since, as a student and teacher, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that my reponse was similar to the author’s; even moreso after having a miscarriage of my own. A well-written, honest, comprehensive review.

  5. R says:

    It’s funny that you linked to all the details about that exhibit but apparently failed to read the following:

    [quote]Originally donated to the Museum in 1939, the collection has been newly interpreted in a darkened gallery to allow for quiet reflection upon Your Beginning.

    Background on the Exhibit
    Collected in the 1930s by Dr. Helen Button with help from local hospitals, Prenatal Development contains specimens from the difficult times of the Great Depression. To the best of our knowledge, all failed to survive because of accidents or natural causes. Dr. Button obtained the parents’ permission to use these specimens as teaching tools.[/quote]

    So you can stop your pearl clutching now.

  6. Jill Leech says:

    Kathryn, I really enjoyed your review of the exhibit. It made me feel as thought I was really there. It evoked emotion and I believe that is the most powerful tool in education. Thank you for your very personal and well written review.
    Jill

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  9. Timothy Clark says:

    I stumbled across this because I went to the S&I museum a few years ago and saw this. At first I thought they were wax models or something. I was with my girlfriend at the time and neither of us could believe they were real. Something like that stays with you. That was two years ago. They knew what they were doing by not having any information on the exhibit. It makes you question and think.

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  11. Sue Everson says:

    Hi there.

    You wanted to know how these Babies used to be displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry? (quote) What did the original exhibit look like? (unquote)

    I grew up in the Chicago area and so every time our family went to the Museum of Science and Industry we always visited the Babies. I saw the exhibit mostly in the late sixties and early seventies. I think the Babies were in the same room as the big Heart (replica) that us kids could walk through. As I remember the Babies were on one side of the museum room. They were displayed up high on ledge so curious fingers couldn’t tap the glass. There was no special lighting for the display cases and only a paragraph or so of what they were. I always knew that they were real and not replica and I always found the last one so sad. That baby was almost born. Even as a child I found them to be more curious than morbid.

  12. Rob says:

    To answer your question, the specimens could be examined from front and back and in a space to allow attachment or detachment.
    The fact this exhibit has been changed to restrict viewing of the specimens is proof science is distorted. A better word for “reinterpretation” is “perversion” of science with that appeal for “quiet reflection upon Your Beginning”. Well, better if you believe abortion should be a choice.
    I knew that was my beginning at age 10 viewing the exhibit, didn’t think of a developed human being until 20-22 week old fetus. The heavenly luminous lighting or ” silhouetted in soft white spotlights” is not a “stunning presentation”, it’s propaganda for anti choicers, as you note it’s different “experiencing it in person”.
    Interesting how a PhD who teaches rhetorical grammar fails to recognize or acknowledge nonverbal manipulation. I would change the exhibit by adding to the right to the exhibited specimen a hologram image that can be moved for additional viewing angles front & back along with a slide to turn on/off what has happened in development for the previous specimen. Far more informative but disrupting the fetus worship…err “quiet reflection upon Your Beginning”.
    Your essay provides the evidence you are anti abortion or manipulated. Either way, the questions you ask in the 3rd paragraph are silly. The term “baby” for anything in the exhibit is inaccurate, I’ll use the word fetus. Of course the parents were alive, likely single mothers from what I recall. when the exhibit was put on display in 1939. The fetuses were collected in the early 30″s. Dr. Helen Button did not get permission from anyone to put these specimens on display (hell, it was the 1930’s, no one thought about that!) the museum is lying about permission being given. It wished to silence objections to the display and shield personal attacks on Dr Button, who died in 1995. There were no funerals or mourning for these miscarriages, because they were MISCARRIAGES! To answer the question of a soul being at rest first needs the question of whether a soul exists answered.
    Now, for answering your question: “What kind of consent can a baby give?” I have some questions to ask: Were you having a blonde moment? Were you on your period when you asked that? Were you in the throes of female hysterics when that thought came to you?
    I suppose you’d view my choice of Rhetorical Grammar as odious in that last paragraph, but the question seemed deserving of mockery. However, I’ll answer that question from my perspective if I were a miscarried fetus: Yes, I would love being on display, I was well hung and it’d beat being worm food.
    Of course, I can adopt a mindset of a person opposed to abortion, write an expressive and emotional essay about the Prenatal exhibit if I viewed the new presentation, pretend that its honest or blind to its dishonesty, not using phrases like “a piece of brainwashing”. Doubt if a persuasive essay is possible, give the polarization of the issue of abortion. I’d liberally use the word baby and unborn, but also show understanding that these fetuses had survived to birth and alive now that they would be over 80 years old.

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