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