Exploring the Human Body

Two months after opening, the Hall of Human Life at the Museum of Science brings doctors, researchers, and residents together in the pursuit of medical knowledge.

Hall of Human Life entrance, photos by Stephanie Cohn

Hall of Human Life entrance, photos by Stephanie Cohn

Since opening in November at the Boston Museum of Science, the Hall of Human Life has allowed visitors of all ages to explore the inner mechanics of the human body like never before. In a world where wide-eyed school children are constantly being told to keep their hands to themselves, this interactive world seems like magic. Even adults can find their inner child as they eagerly participate in the many activities the exhibit has to offer. And yet, the influence of the hall extents beyond the museum walls; the Hall of Human Life is bringing together the Boston medical community.

For exhibit manager, Elizabeth Kong, the exhibit is all about questions, and how they draw the community together. “We want to bring these topics to the dinner table and ask the questions that they don’t normally talk about in a typical classroom environment,” she says. For example, Kong explained that when a person has been diagnosed with a condition like hypertension or high blood pressure, they often don’t question what it really means. That’s where the museum comes in, helping visitors think deeper about how their bodies work.

Exhibit Manager Elizabeth Kong at Hypertension Station

Exhibit Manager Elizabeth Kong at the Hypertension Station

In fact, Kong says that people will often come to the exhibit to learn more about the diseases directly affecting their lives. “All of these topics touch us personally,” Kong said. To emphasize her point, she pointed to a screen with three faces on it at the “cancer station.” Kong explained that each disease station has three videos with stories of people from around the Boston area who have battled that particular illness. Kong says that including these stories is important because it gives the disease a human context, rather than just providing scientific information.

The hall also manages to seamlessly blend the past, present, and future of medicine in each station. The past is represented from the stories of recovered patients, and the present is represented through the interactive models that show what’s currently happening in a person’s body when they have a disease. As for the future, each station features current research around the Boston area. Kong says that the information will be changed every eight months to keep up with the most current studies.

“It was amazing to work with our neighbors. How people know what’s going on in the medical community is usually just word of mouth, but here we have bridged the gap between clinicians, researchers and the public,” Kong says. “People can come here to learn about what is going on in our their backyard.”

The exhibit was formed with the help of more than 100 advisors from hospitals and institutions around Boston, like Massachusetts’s General Hospital (MGH), Brigham and Women’s, and Harvard Medical Center. These institutions provided crucial information and aided in the engineering of the 70 interactive elements. For example, MGH worked with the museum on the hypertension station, which features a model of an artery that fills with air to represent what high blood pressure feels like.

Cancer Station at Hall of Human Life

The Cancer Station explains why patients have certain side affects while on chemotherapy

One station that Kong feels is particularly important is called “Major Depression.” She recalls a young boy, who said that after exploring the station, he realized that you can’t just snap out of depression because it’s caused by the brain. Kong remembers this moment because she saw how the museum was helping to break down misconceptions behind certain diseases like depression and cancer. Many people don’t know why cancer patients lose their hair, Kong says, which is why the cancer exhibit explains the science behind why chemotherapy has certain side affects like hair loss.

The exhibit has the visitors not just learning about research, but participating in it as well. The hall has 15 link stations which allows participants to contribute in quick studies and add their results to a growing pool of data. The participants are then able to see how they compare to other guests who have taken the same tests. For example, in one of the stations, visitors put their hand on a cold patch while it measures how well your body reacts to the temperature change.

“How well do you do in the cold” link station

“It’s a new level of outreach,” Kong says. The Hall of Human Life is drawing together the questions that doctors and researchers have asked for years, and it invites regular people to ask them, too.

On just a regular Tuesday, the exhibit hosted about 2,000 children on school field trips. And while the exhibit is a collaboration with doctors, researchers, and engineers, without the visitors the exhibit would not run. The Hall of Human Life is fueled by the participation of its guests, and as they learn and share the knowledge that they’ve learned at the exhibit, they too are becoming a crucial part of the growing Boston medical community.