She stands, stocky, with arms held above her head. Is the pose one of surrender? Welcome? A kind of ‘look at me – I exist’ gesture? At her toes there’s a little plastic placard. It names her: Transparent Woman.
Ah yes, maybe I should have mentioned that too. She’s a little different. For one, she’s an inanimate plastic figure. For another, all of her organs are on display. As you move around this moulded body, the see-through skin allows an up-close examination of her heart, her liver, her intestines. If you’re feeling especially keen, you can even press a button and watch various parts of her light up. All these workings, usually hidden, are on display: cast in various garish shades of pink, green and red. Where our versions are brown flesh, closer to meat, these are multicoloured – and can be scrutinised from every angle.
I wasn’t that struck by her when I first went to the Wellcome Collection. She was just one part of their large permanent exhibition ‘Medicine Now’ – standing among sculptures and prints of cells. She was similar to the scientific kits I’d seen as a kid: smaller versions made to educate us about where exactly our lungs could be found. It was on my second visit that I lingered to stare at her for a while longer, transfixed by the painted lines of veins. I couldn’t work out why I found her so compelling.
She isn’t just any old transparent woman, either. This one is on loan from Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden. According to this excellent blog post, she was built in 1980 and restored in 2006. However, her predecessors stretch back to the early 20th Century. Post World War I, when Germany was still in turmoil, the DHM decided to create a Transparent Man – a life-sized, medically accurate model that could both highlight the human body, and encourage viewers to keep their own mortal parts healthy. He was one of their most popular attractions, the DHM now saying, “the reification of modernism’s image of the human being… conveyed faith in the link between science, transparency, and rationality.” I took those biology kits for granted as a child, but when this man was first put on show, he was sensationally novel. He allowed viewers to dip beneath the surface of their own skin.
He was so successful that a female version was also created. Adam needed his Eve. (For, of course, women always come second!) And, just like Eve, the fact that she was, horror of horrors, ‘naked’ caused something of a problem. Though, incidentally, not as much of a problem as when a sister figure of hers went to Australia in the ’50s – eventually making it to Sydney, but only after a customs officer had threatened to bar her entry on grounds of offensiveness. Oh, and apparently there were also nurses on hand to look after any women who fainted on being faced with this plastic body. No wonder we still have problems talking about female anatomy, when shit like that remains part of our recent history.
There’s a dark shadow attached to these transparent people, too. Pre World War II, the DHM played a significant role in the growing Nazi ideology surrounding physicality and appearance – helping to construct that loathsome Aryan ideal. Their work helped to popularise and provide rationale for Hitler’s promotion of eugenics and, ultimately, mass-murder. The DHM was badly bombed in the final year of the war, and many collections were lost. Post WWII, as part of East Germany, it continued to make transparent figures – including the one now standing in the Wellcome Collection. The museum’s ethos was entirely changed after reunification, and it’s now known as a ‘Museum of Man’.
There’s something extraordinary in thinking about that legacy. Held within the shape of one woman housed in a building close to Euston station, cars roaring up and down the road outside, there are multiple histories: ones that encompass science, medicine, gender, production methods, cultural conceptions of the body, and the terrifying atrocities of 20th Century Europe. She’s not unusual with that. Most things from the past hold numerous imprints and traces, both beautiful and awful.
To return to that question above though, what remains so compelling about her now? Moreover, what makes her fascinating even if you know nothing of that backstory? Perhaps, as humans, we’re just endlessly fascinated by that which is closely personal – our own insides – yet remains hidden to our eyes. We’re well acquainted with our external flesh, but only know those internal workings through the ways they make us feel: a slight wheeze in the lungs, indigestion and gurgling in the stomach, dull aches in muscles after exercise. We’re removed from their actual form and texture.
I still remember being transfixed by the first x-ray I saw of my back. I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 15. My spine grew progressively S-shaped and, as it did, my pain increased. But I knew that condition through the sharp flashes and jabs in my shoulders. Seeing the literal shape of the structure beneath – a gently curving line of white cast bright against the black background – was kind of astounding. That was my spine. It belonged to me, but I’d never seen it before. I probably never would have done if it hadn’t started growing out to the side, rather than neatly upwards.
That’s a general rule too. One only tends to see those workings when something needs to be measured or illuminated by doctors who can read our bodies, making sense of unexpected lumps or strange sensations. X-rays and scans and biopsies and bloods: they’re all taken when there are questions about your own health. I saw my bones when they’d gone wrong, when they needed to be realigned and scaffolded with metal.
Our curiosity extends out beyond the realms of the hospital though. Our intricate workings are charted in anatomical drawings and photos, written about in books, and documented on film. Skeletons and skulls are used to teach biology. Body parts are dissected by trainee doctors. At the more unnerving end of the scale, one can find shrunken heads, Egyptian mummies, bog men and women, and plenty of other oddities in museums. Sometimes these are about spectacle, sometimes about education, sometimes about preservation. Sometimes about a historical ‘othering’ of any kind of human form considered deviant from the norm (an issue that could provoke an essay all of its own.).
I’m not sure how to categorise all of that curiosity. Morbid? Inquisitive? Grotesque? Healthily intrigued? Maybe it depends on what’s being scrutinized. With the Transparent Woman, it’s perhaps all of them at once. These various layers – skeleton, muscles, organs – are the vital tools that keep us going. It’s only natural that we should want to know how they work.
Moreover, given the huge ongoing conversations about body image, there’s little time spent on these crucial commonalities that bind us together – our functionality; our body’s ability (we hope) to let us walk around, digest food, breathe in and out, go dancing, laugh until it hurts, carry on with that general business of living. Obviously that’s not quite the case for everyone. Plenty experience some sort of physical limit or boundary. Yet this Transparent Woman certainly illustrates intimacies many of us share – things that thud and contract and process, hidden away, keeping us going day after day after day.