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Issue Date: March 2005 Issue


Gutsy Move

Linda Abraham-Silver was recruited to re-energize the Great Lakes Science Center. She'll learn whether her vision pays dividends when Body Worlds II, the famous exhibit of artfully preserved human bodies, goes on display next month.
Jeannie Roberts

Walking into the Great Lakes Science Center's Body Worlds II exhibit this spring or summer will be as close as you can come to traveling beneath your own skin. The specimens that'll be on display look amazingly real — because they are.

These were once real people, and they gave their bodies to science for the specific purpose of public education and display. Their death certificates verify that they knew their bodies would be publicly exhibited this way.

When you look at them, you will essentially be looking at yourself. You'll see everything that's under your own skin — muscles, bones and organs —and how it all works together. A technique called plastination has stopped the decay process and, since the bodies have retained their original coloring, what you'll see on display is hauntingly real. The bodies are partially dissected, the skin pulled back to reveal what is underneath, and certain systems — nervous, respiratory, digestive — are highlighted in some of the displays.

"Everybody's got a body," says Linda Abraham-Silver, the new president and executive director of the Science Center, who decided to bring the exhibit to Cleveland. "That makes this show relevant to everyone."

Abraham-Silver, only 35, is a budding superstar in museum management. She's come all the way from Los Angeles to reverse the Science Center's sagging attendance, bringing loads of energy, enthusiasm and charm. Body Worlds, enormously important and possibly controversial, is her big debut.

The Cleveland show, officially titled Body Worlds II: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, will include bodies posed playing soccer, a look inside a pregnant woman and a piece called "Suicide by Fat: Obesity Revealed," which shows how fat tissue damages vital organs. There are even a couple of plastinated camels in the show. Visitors will never have seen anything like it. Before plastination, bodies couldn't be posed in real-life ways, only skeletons.

"You can't go through this exhibition and not be compelled to do something different in your life, whether it's giving up smoking because you see the lungs of the smoker or not drinking as much because you see a [cirrhosed] liver," Abraham-Silver says. "There's something about each of these that makes you think."

These bodies might make Abraham-Silver think of some harrowing experiences she's seen with human bodies in her own life: She narrowly escaped paralysis in a horse-riding accident eight years ago and she's watched her husband battle brain cancer.

After Body Worlds' North American debut at Los Angeles' California Science Center, at least 50 people, including museum president Jeffrey N. Rudolph, were moved enough to sign up to donate their own bodies for plastination. The exhibit attracted 600,000 visitors, making it the center's most popular offering ever. To accommodate last-minute crowds, the center stayed open 24 hours a day for the last two days of the show this January. Traffic jams caused a 45-minute wait on the last mile of freeway, and special electronic traffic signs were installed to direct visitors to the center. Once there, people waited in lines five hours long.

"People looked at it with reverence as well as wonder," wrote Lael Welch, a Long Beach resident with Cleveland ties, in an e-mail to friends here. "About halfway through, I realized how hushed people spoke to one another. At the end, I felt like saying a prayer of thanksgiving for all those souls who donated their bodies. This exhibition is really a gift."

Lorelei Sugano, 25, a marketing coordinator for the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, saw the show in Los Angeles and agrees. "It's so unique," she says. "I'd heard about it before and I thought I was ready for it, but until you walk in, you can't really comprehend how it is. You have to see it in person."

Abraham-Silver is counting on that. "This show is about sending the message about the Great Lakes Science Center being a player in the science-center world," she says.

It's also about reviving excitement and attendance at the Science Center. After attracting 750,000 visitors in 1996, the year it opened, the center has seen attendance fall steadily, to fewer than 450,000 last year. Abraham-Silver is hoping Body Worlds — which opens April 9 and closes Sept. 18 — will become a blockbuster here as it was in Los Angeles, boosting two of the center's fiscal years and kicking off a string of new, more exciting exhibits.

It's risky: she's been warned that some Clevelanders might find the display of actual human cadavers — however well-preserved — distasteful or disrespectful, so she's enlisted local religious leaders to help prepare people for the show.

"It will be either my first really big, phenomenal success or my first huge mistake," she says. "I stand to get great accolades or get fired, I guess. I can handle that."

At first, it's surprising that Abraham-Silver, a petite beauty, packs such toughness. Then, you learn her story and discover she's had a lot of practice at gutting it out.

Eight years ago, while horseback riding, her horse threw her to the ground. She not only immediately remounted, but she kept smiling through considerable pain until she could finish the riding clinic, put the horse away and muck out the stall. She drove herself home and asked her boyfriend for a couple of aspirin.

What she got instead was a 10-day hospital stay, back surgery for two busted vertebrae and three months in a body cast. She still carries some lovely parting gifts from that experience: titanium rods along both sides of her spine and some impressive scars.

She got back on the horse, she says now, because "I just didn't want anybody to think I was a wimp."

Years later, she'd prove that point again when, in the throes of labor, she drove herself to the hospital to give birth to her second child. "There was nobody else there. I had to do it."

Difficult day? Check lipstick. Smile.

Obstacles? Invite them to have a seat. Tell them, "I'll get to you shortly."

Adversity? Challenge to a personal duel. Win.

Imagine this: It's February, two years ago. You're 33 years old, have a beautiful 2-year-old named Caroline and are eight months pregnant with a son. You're a vice president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and your husband, Brad Silver, has ceded to your career and has happily been Mr. Mom since Caroline was 6 weeks old. Lately, though, Brad's been having migraine headaches. Now, with test results returned, a 5-minute conversation in a hospital hallway is about to irretrievably change everything.

Brad, also 33, has the worst form of brain cancer you can get: glioblastoma multiforme (stage IV). He's just been told that, as abruptly as this — snap! — he's going to die in two months.

Eight weeks.

From right now.

Just. Like. That.

You're Linda Abraham. You're eight months pregnant. You have a successful career, a lovely child and a very sick husband. What do you do?

"Don't let anybody think you're a wimp. There's nobody else here. Figure out what has to be done and then do it," she says.

The first thing the couple did was literally a lifesaver: They got a second opinion. Doctors at UCLA said yes to a cutting-edge surgery that would make a very cool science-center exhibit in itself. Because the tumor was located in the language area of Brad's brain, he had to be kept awake during the surgery so doctors could make sure he could still recognize words and pictures and speak.

"[In the operating room], I remembered this ridiculous line from ‘The Simpsons,' " he says. "Just before we started, I said, ‘Look, brain, I don't like you and you don't like me, so let's just get through this and I'll get back to killing you with beer.' "

Today, Brad has nearly finished his chemotherapy and he'll get MRIs every two months to make sure the cancer isn't returning. Just as he nursed Linda back to health after the riding accident, she's been encouraging him through his trial, placing tiny goals in front of him all the way. "First it was, ‘Be alive until BJ's born,' " she says. "Then it was, ‘Be alive until the end of summer,' then ‘Be alive until Christmas…' "

Abraham-Silver's friend Leah Melber, an assistant professor at Cal State University-Los Angeles, calls her "the quintessential steel magnolia. Linda is inspirational and beautiful and strong — strong in the way she got through that nasty accident, strong in the way she's a leader and friend, and strong in the way she faced Brad's health challenge."

Meanwhile, Abraham-Silver's focus and motivational skills were attracting her colleagues' notice. In the relatively small world of informal science educators, she was noted for her creative and innovative thinking. And she was no academic slouch: She's a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in science education from the University of Southern California, on top of the MBA she already has from Pepperdine University.

"Her overnight success was more deliberate than it might seem," observes Dr. William McComas, her dissertation adviser at USC. "She's on the young side of the spectrum, but her strategic plan was extremely well-crafted. People might wonder why someone with an MBA would get a Ph.D. in education. It's because she knew what she wanted and where she was going."

Last February, Dr. Lynn Dierking, an internationally respected museum science educator based in Annapolis, Md., got a call from the Washington, D.C., headhunting firm Spencer Stuart, which was helping the Great Lakes Science Center search for a new executive director.

"They called and said, ‘Is there a rising star in this business, someone who's not currently a director but who has tremendous potential to be a good one?' " She replied almost instantly: "Linda Abraham in Los Angeles."

"From the moment that I met [Abraham-Silver], I was really impressed with her savvy, despite her young years," Dierking says. "Plus, she's just so perky and bright. She could get people excited about dirt."

Abraham-Silver managed to bowl over the Science Center's search committee despite working a full Friday in Los Angeles and taking a red-eye flight to Cleveland for the 9 a.m. Saturday meeting.

"She was full of energy and enthusiasm, and I was so impressed by her can-do attitude and fresh thinking," says Dr. Jenny Brown, vice chairman of the Science Center's board of trustees and a member of the search committee. "I thought ‘Wow, what a dynamic young lady. She is just what we need!"

Abraham-Silver was the 10-person search committee's unanimous choice to assume the center's presidency.

Abraham-Silver took over at a crucial time for the Science Center. Richard Coyne, 69, president since its inception, had retired for health reasons. Attendance at the Science Center was dropping. Part of that was due to the nationwide trend of declining attendance at cultural institutions. Also, budget cuts in local school districts, especially the Cleveland Municipal Schools, had made field trips rare. Finally, Abraham-Silver acknowledges, the Science Center might have become stale to repeat visitors after eight years.

The place needed saving, and Abraham-Silver is young, energetic, innovative new blood. She started at the Science Center in August 2004, has already taken some behind-the-scenes steps to make the center friendlier to visitors, and she's retooling exhibit offerings.

"Addressing the guest experience was at the top of everybody's list and we're still improving that," she says. "We want to do everything possible to ensure a great customer experience. We've looked at everything from the food service to how tickets are sold, what kinds of signs and maps we provide, things like that." She hired a consultant who specializes in museum food service to do what she calls "marriage counseling" between the Science Center and the food-service operator — and the food service has improved, she says.

She also revamped the traveling exhibition schedule. She landed Body Worlds, scrapped some scheduled exhibits and is looking for shows that will appeal to a wide range of people. She'll follow up Body Worlds with Grossology, a look at bodily functions, and Dogs — Wolf, Myth, Hero, Friend, a show that Abraham-Silver developed in Los Angeles in 2002.

"These won't put us on the map the way Body Worlds will, but they will help us stabilize and increase attendance," she says. "These are good, solid educational shows, and we are giving our guests something worth coming to see."

She's quick to forecast a bright future for the Science Center. It has a surplus of operating reserves, she notes, and a $12.5 million endowment it can fall back on if necessary. "We are not in trouble financially," she says. "We, like a lot of other institutions, are experiencing a down cycle, but we are in the enviable position of being able to financially handle a down cycle. We fully expect to overcome this in the next two years. Body Worlds will help with that."

Early reviews of her leadership are good. "She didn't come into the Science Center and break all the dishes," says John Brinzo, chairman of the center's board of directors and CEO of Cleveland Cliffs. "She's made some changes, but she hasn't trashed anything positive that happened in the past."

That's her style, says Scott Mair, who worked for Abraham-Silver at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in 2000. "She's not threatened by new ideas and she's very skillful at the political aspects of working in a major institution," Mair says. "She doesn't do it through intrigue and alliances, but rather through consensus building and partnerships, vision and enthusiasm."

 

It took daring to bring Body Worlds to town. "I have had so many conversations with leaders across Cleveland who took a look at this Body Worlds material and said, ‘This is fabulous, it's fascinating — but this is Cleveland,' " Abraham-Silver says. They warned her that, stunning or not, exhibiting human cadavers might upset people here.

"Some people think that the body is a great mystery, sacred ground, and that it should be preserved only for the medical community," she notes. "I don't want to come in and say, ‘Pooh-pooh' to anybody's Midwest values," but she points out that 200,000 people in Greater Cleveland are employed in the medical industry. "They should be seeing this show."

The Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the MetroHealth System and Whole Health Management — are all on board as sponsors of Body Worlds. The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Case Western Reserve University's Dittrick Medical History Center have all discussed offering supplemental parallel exhibits or participating in other ways during Body Worlds' stay. Local religious leaders have joined an advisory panel and are helping the Science Center spread the word about the show. Now that it's been so successful in Los Angeles, Abraham-Silver and the center are more confident that Cleveland will accept it, too.

"There will be some differences of opinion here," predicts Brinzo. "But Cleveland is ready for Body Worlds. I think we can handle it."

The original exhibit debuted seven years ago in Japan, toured Asia and Europe, came to Los Angeles in August 2004 and moved to Chicago in February. Cleveland will actually host a new version of the show, Body Worlds II, after its February and March run in Los Angeles. The show, which includes 25 complete bodies and 200 specimens, is made possible by the plastination process invented by German scientist Gunther von Hagens in 1977. Bodies are drained of fluids and fats and immersed in a reactive polymer that stops the decay process.

Abraham-Silver saw the original exhibit in Los Angeles, knew the museum administrator who brought it to the United States, and decided to pursue getting Body Worlds to Cleveland. "I knew that if I could bring that here, it would be a huge first move … controversial or not," she says. She worked with the help of Jeffrey Rudolph, the California Science Center president, who thought of her as a protégé of sorts. He arranged a three-way phone conversation between himself, von Hagens and Abraham-Silver. She convinced von Hagens that Body Worlds belonged in Cleveland.

"It makes sense in Cleveland because we're so known for medicine," she says. "And Gunther agreed."

Brinzo thinks Body Worlds is a great step toward giving the Science Center national prominence. "This is an excellent example of the way Linda works," he says. "She saw the opportunity for Body Worlds, moved on it rapidly and now here we are: Cleveland, the third city in North America that will get this blockbuster exhibit.

"It's a great coup for Cleveland, not only to have this exhibit, but to be able to recruit someone like Linda who has such leadership and maturity beyond her years."

Science Center employees are used to seeing Abraham-Silver roam the exhibit floor. She's routinely received with warmth and humor. Recently, at the end of a day, Abraham-Silver was chatting with visitors when an employee came over.

"The gift shop is closing," the employee said. "If you're in here much longer, you'll be doing the vacuuming."

Everyone chuckled, but nobody made a move to leave.

"She's the boss," a visitor said, pointing at Abraham-Silver.

As if the idea had just occurred to her, Abraham-Silver chimed in, "Yeah. I'm the boss."

"I don't care," the employee said jokingly. "You stay, you vacuum."

"Oooh. Well I guess we best get out of here," Abraham-Silver replied, laughing.

Making the Science Center nationally prominent is an important goal, Abraham-Silver says, but she keeps in mind who counts most — her customers: the children and adults of Cleveland — and who is helping her get there: those who work for her.

"Sometimes, I go down and watch the kids in the Polymer Funhouse or on the Bridge of Fire, and I can feel good at the end of the day when I'm leaving, knowing that this positively impacted somebody's life and that I've seen it happen," she says. "That's much more tangible in this kind of job than in any other."


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