by lyle e davis
We didn’t really know what to expect.
Who goes to an exhibition hall that is full of dead bodies? And enjoys it?
To our very great and pleasant surprise, the exhbition known as Body Worlds is a very tastefully presented experience in the exploration of anatomical science and a blending of art, science, education and, often, the satisfaction of curiousity.
It was a Saturday and we journeyed to the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park, only vaguely aware of what we were about to see.
What we found was a huge exhibition hall, filled with a variety of men and women who cared enough to give of themselves so the world might better know more about the human body.
There’s lots to see, lots to learn. The body is explored in its entirety. Bones, muscle, tendons, ligaments, internal organs, external organs, whatever area of the body interests you, the answers await in living . . . well, in color.
It’s all made possible through a method known as plastination, a technique developed and perfected by Dr. Gunther von Hagen. The process often takes up to one year to prepare a donor’s body for presentation to the public in a show such as Body Worlds. Over 26 million people have viewed the various Body World Exhibits. In addition to San Diego, there are similar exhibits currently in Tampa, Florida, and Berlin, Germany.
The exhibition features more than 200 real human body specimens, including more than 20 whole bodies and healthy and unhealthy organs, all preserved through a remarkable process called Plastination, invented by anatomist, Dr. Gunther von Hagens. As a result of his process, visitors to are able to see inside the human body, learn how it works and how it can be affected by disease and lifestyle choices. Body Worlds is a unique joint work in science—a collaboration between anatomist, donors, and visitors. Since 1983, more than 9500 donors, including 175 from California, have bequeathed their bodies to serve educational purposes after death through Plastination.
Officially, the exhibition is called BODY WORLDS & The Brain—Our Three Pound Gem. That portion of the exhibit that focuses on the brain includes a special feature on the wonders of the brain—inspired by findings in neuroscience on brain development, function, disease, disorders, and brain performance and improvement.
Body Worlds aims to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and show the effects of poor health, good health, and lifestyle choices. It is also presented in the hopes that it will stimulate curiosity about the science of anatomy. Real human bodies show the details of disease and anatomy that cannot be shown with models. They also allow us to understand how each body has its own unique features, even on the inside.
The exhibitions rely on the generosity of body donors; individuals who bequeathed that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibition. All of the full-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; some specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes. As agreed upon by the body donors, their identities and causes of death are not provided. The exhibition focuses on the nature of our bodies, not on providing personal information.
BODY WORLDS exhibitions have been displayed in Asia, Europe and North America. Past U.S. venues include Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Jose, St. Louis, Baltimore, Houston, Charlotte, and Phoenix.
Is the exhibition suitable for children? In my judgment, absolutely! It is probably the best and easiest way for young minds to begin to understand the body and how it works. While full body plastinate displays are exhibited, including exposed genitals, this is not only not a problem, it is probably a good idea for youngsters to learn anatomy under educational conditions rather than on the streets. However, children under 13 must be accompanied by responsible adults during their visit.
How Body Worlds came into being: In July 1977, while working as a scientist and research assistant at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Pathology and Anatomy, Dr. Gunther von Hagens had an outrageous notion. “I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic. It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens, rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimens from within and literally allow you to grasp it.” The notion, an epiphany for von Hagens, was the genesis of his invention of Plastination. During this groundbreaking process, all bodily fluids and soluble fat from anatomical specimens are extracted to stop decomposition and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers—such as silicon rubber and epoxy—that harden with gas, light, or heat curing. When the process is complete, specimens have rigidity and permanence.
In March of 1978, von Hagens filed a patent for his invention with the German Patent Office. However, he had only scratched the surface of Plastination. The refinement of his invention and the creation of the first whole-body plastinate would take 13 more years, though he declares even now that his methods are not yet perfect.
With Plastination, von Hagens has irrevocably changed the traditional field of anatomy and its audience. “The purpose of Plastination from its very inception was a scientific one, to educate medical students. But the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired me to think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realization that I had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination,” says von Hagens. Since 1996, more than 26 million people around the world have viewed the BODY WORLDS exhibitions.
In addition to developing the plastination technique, von Hagens is the creator of BODY WORLDS: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. That is emphasized in press releases accompanying the show because there is another show competing for the spectator dollar. Copycats, according to von Hagens. Make no mistake about it, this is big business. The stakes are rather high and the money the exhibits generate is amazing.
At an average of $27 per adult and with an average crowd count of 3,000 per day, the exhibition takes in about $81,000 per day, and that’s just on admissions. Add in audio rental devices, books sales, concession sales and you’re probably looking at close to $100,000 per day. That is just in San Diego. Meanwhile, a similar exhibit is taking place in Florida, and around the world.
It takes a lot of money to provide this service, however. The institute that von Havens runs employs a staff that works on the plastination of bodies, on preparing exhibits, arranging them, transporting them, and training new personnel in the art of plastination. Additionally, the institute sells plastinated bodies to college and university biological and anatomical laboratories for teaching. And their inventory is attained at no cost since most of the bodies are donated by more than willing donors who are not paid a penny for their contribution; indeed, they have to pay to transport the remains to the institute and any attendant funeral home costs.
Visitors to Body Worlds will experience 20 full-body and 200 human specimens, learn about the brain and how it functions and develops, learn about the body’s various locomotive, digestive, nervous and vascular systems, explore how our bodies respond to movement and physical challenges, and see the mechanics of artificial knees and hips. Visitors will be helped to understand the long-term impact of disease, the effects of tobacco, and the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle; they will also get an up-close, in-depth look at the human brain, see beautiful plastinates displayed in athletic poses, illustrating the body’s physiological capabilities.
Admission is a hefty, but well worth it, $27 for adults Friday-Sunday, $21 for youth age 13-17 and college students or military with ID, Friday-Sunday, $18 for children age 3-12 Friday-Sunday; seniors age 62+, $17 Friday-Sunday, children 2 and under are FREE. Exhibition hours Sunday – Thursday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 7:30
Preparing a technically correct, whole-body plastinate requires 1000 to 1500 man-hours. The aim of the IfP is to produce human specimens and make them available both for basic and continuing medical training as well as for the general medical education of the public. The specimens are prepared solely for this purpose and only passed on directly to recognized educational and research establishments and scientific museums, but not to private individuals or dealers.
There are now more than 400 plastination laboratories in 40 countries around the world using plastination to prepare specimens for academic study.
Visitors can envision how their own bodies are constructed as they walk through the exhibition, starting with the human skeleton and the way muscles are structured, on to the intestines and special specimens on the nerves and blood vessels, all the way to the way a baby develops in the uterus. There are also specimens that show the effects of disease such as a heart attack or cancer.
The exhibition has been on constant display since 1995 and has been shown in Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the UK, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and the US.
Dr. Ernst-D. Lantermann, professor of personality and social psychology at the University of Kassel, Germany, developed an extensive representative survey of visitors and conducted his poll at many exhibitions with the goal of making the public debate more objective. This was intended to create as neutral a snapshot as possible of the visitors' expectations, motives, and
impressions of the exhibition and of how people planned to behave in the future as a result of seeing BODY WORLDS.
Doctor Gunther von Hagen
Creator of Body Worlds
The survey showed that hardly any other exhibition has met with such approval. A total of 69% of those who attended the exhibition stated that the authenticity of the specimens on display had a great impact on their understanding of the body, and half of them said that they found the specimens aesthetically stimulating. Only a minority (6% on average) said that they felt it violated human dignity to show such specimens of people's bodies. After the exhibition, 83% of the visitors said that they now knew more about the human body, and nearly half of them felt “more pensive about life and death.” Altogether, 77% expressed “immense respect for the miracle of the human body,” and 56% said that they received important inspiration to lead healthier lives in the future. Furthermore, a third of those surveyed stated that they appreciated their bodies more after having attended the exhibition. Overall, the largely positive expectations that people had before seeing BODY WORLDS were universally upheld, while only a small minority felt that their negative expectations were confirmed. A total of 56% of those polled said that they were determined to pay more attention to their physical health in the future. The exhibition also brought 20% of the visitors to see the act of donating organs in a more positive light. Of those attending the exhibition, 19% could imagine donating their bodies for plastination after death, and 21% indicated that they would now be more willing than before to “permit an autopsy to determine the cause of death more precisely.” In terms of the impact on changing visitors' attitudes, the BODY WORLDS exhibition has had a lasting and—in our opinion—extremely positive effect on those who have seen it. Three-quarters of the visitors said that they wanted to spend more time thinking about the insights and impressions that they experienced by attending the exhibition.
That was true in our household as well. Bottom line: it’s an outstanding exhibition, well worth the money and presented in a tasteful manner.
Go see it.