Perhaps the most controversial of carnival exhibits in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century was known in the argot of the freak show as “pickled punk,” the preservation and display of fetuses, usually with some pronounced and spectacular deformity. Such displays titillated a curiosity for “knowledge” of the abnormal and bizarre, but like carnival freak shows in general, the practice largely died out in the 1940s with advances in medical knowledge that offered scientific explanations for the freaks, as well as a shift in public attitudes about the propriety of putting such oddities and anomalies on public display. Pickled punk saw a revival in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, but was soon outlawed in many states.
I was reminded of the history of the freak show, and of pickled punks in particular, when I saw this photograph, the first image in the recent reprise of a 2005 slide show at the Chicago Tribune :
What you are looking at is the vascular system of a human head that is on display as part of a traveling exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled “Body Worlds.” “Body Worlds” is one of a number of different shows which exhibit human bodies that have been flayed, vivisected and “plastinated.” Plastination is a chemical process that removes waters and fats from a dead body, replacing them with reactive polymers that deny bacteria the nutrition they need to effect decomposition. “Body Worlds” exhibits have been shown throughout the United States and Europe in recent years and with the avowed purpose “to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and [to] show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices.”
There is surely need for great scientific literacy in the United States, but one has to wonder if what animates these shows is really an interest in knowledge or a perverse desire to encounter the macabre. I’ve not yet attended one of these shows, but I have talked with several who have and they report that the displays include everything from plastinated body organs (often deformed or diseased) to a wide array of human bodies performing a full range of activities that include kneeling, smoking a cigarette, dribbling a basketball, shooting an arrow, sitting at a table while playing poker or chess, emulating Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and so on. And with the exception of the “The Smoker,” whose blackened lungs stand as a warning against the use of tobacco, there seems to be very little display or discussion of knowledge about human anatomy that would otherwise be hard to come by, though there is a great deal of attention to the technology of plastination, as well as praise and celebration of its inventor, scientist-artist Gunther von Hagen, who comes across in many ways as a contemporary P.T. Barnum.
Knowledge or entertainment? What’s the big deal? And why shouldn’t the mass dissemination of knowledge be entertaining? It is, of course, hard to know quite where to begin here, but one thing that clearly gets lost in all of this is that we are looking at flayed and vivisected corpses that at one time housed living and breathing human beings, their nameless bodies thoroughly objectified and put on display for our visual consumption. Questions have been raised recently about where the bodies actually come from, but there is another point to be made, for it is hard to imagine how these displays are designed more to prime or sate our thirst for knowledge—or to inure us to the dead or decaying body as part of an avant-garde intervention against bourgeois taboos—than to titillate our desire for macabre spectacle. Indeed, in a slightly different register we might actually call it pornography. How else can we explain the reported “fascination“ with images like that of “The Skin Man“ holding out his own outer shell for our examination (and edification)?
In its own way it would seem to be a late modern form of pickled punk.
Photo Credits: E. Jason Wamsgans/Tribune; Gunther von Hagens/Body World