Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cavorting Cadavers in the dance of life

Can you imagine in the not so distant future that Body Worlds 2, an artistic exhibition of human cadavers, created by Gunter von Hagen’s plastinated process, could be featured as part of Body Zone at the Queensland Museum South Bank, Brisbane or at the Scienceworks museum in Melbourne? Currently on display at the museums of Science and Industry in Philadelphia, this exhibition of real human bodies belongs here in Australia, as well.

Plastination is a modern mummification process that allows entire bodies to be preserved and displayed after the fat in biopsied body parts has been replaced with modern plastic as a preservative. (BodyWorlds2, September 2005)

In the past, medical students used human cadavers preserved in formaldehyde to supplement Gray’s Anatomy, a textbook on the human body. Today, scentless displays of plastinated bodies posed as though they were about to move into motion are available for viewing by laypersons in this exhibition. Spending an hour with von Hagen’s twenty corpses minus their skins in the BodyWorlds2 exhibition allows museum goers an extraordinary opportunity to understand just how various body parts interact.

For instance, in the Queensland Museum’s Body Zone, the Biking with Boney display allows youngsters to ride tandem on a bicycle with a plastic skeleton in order to see how joints function. Featured are special joints made just for the museum visitor. (Body Zone, October 2005)

Von Hagen’s plastinated bodies offer real human bones to complement one’s understanding of how joints interact with the tendons and muscles that support them. The two exhibits combined would allow museum goers a fuller understanding of the working of human joints.

The current Hundreds of bones exhibit on display in Body Zone at the Queensland Museum would be a greater teaching tool if the museum added a BodyWorlds2 model with muscles, tendons, and ligaments attached to those bones.

“Frightening and disgusting” are terms used by some to describe this exhibit now touring North America and hopefully arriving in Australia at some date in the near future. However, with respectful intent, it is possible to view the several systems of the human body in three dimensions, to see muscles connecting, tendons and ligaments joining, bones supporting, and nerves and blood vessels energizing bodies that are neither frightening nor disgusting. Viewers can respond to the artfully displayed body as a total functioning entity. One begins to have a new respect for one’s own body when viewing the complexity and dynamics evident in these biopsied human specimens.

If literature gives us the opportunity to understand the emotional similarities between human beings regardless of culture, plastination and the BodyWorlds2 exhibit allows us an opportunity to understand that once the skin has been removed, the similarities between us outweigh in every instance the differences.

This exhibition, which I saw at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry in February of 2005 and that is now on display in Philadelphia, may come to Australia at some time in the future. It is one of the most celebratory compendiums of dead humanity I have experienced.

17 million people from Taipei to Singapore, from Munich to Los Angeles have so far visited the BodyWorlds exhibitions. Not everyone finds the exhibition a positive experience. For instance, In Munich the exhibition was closed as a result of community concern. Von Hagens responded by scheduling the next exhibition of BodyWorlds in North America where it has been displayed in San Francisco, Los Angles, Chicago, Toronto, and Philadelphia where it is currently open.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with the concerns of the Germans. The individuality of each of the plastinated bodies on display and the respect for the exhibition from the group with whom I travelled through the museum in February 2005 convince me that this is no circus sideshow. Indeed, this is a teaching opportunity, a time to experience in entirely natural ways what it means to physically function as a human.

As a result of the patented process, plastination, developed by Gunther von Hagens and the gift of their bodies by the dying, Australians can see with clarity just how connections are made in the human body. When the ballerina is on point, when the skateboarder is upside down coming off of a particularly vivacious run, when the soccer player is at full tilt in his goal kick, when the male body builder is using his shoulder and back muscles to keep himself prone on the rings, when the three day eventer is about to take the highest jump in the show on the back of her graceful, powerful stallion, we can see how the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and spine function to produce spectacular action.

For instance, I have arthritis in my left knee. Although I have seen plastic models of my knee and plastic skeletons, I have had no real idea of how my knee works until I viewed twenty different human cadavers with muscles and tendons in tact captured in a moment of movement. In order to offer more specific information, some models have artificial joints surgically implanted. Perhaps for the first time, the general public can see just how these man-made joints not only function, but also fit into existing real body parts.

The brochure, provided by the California Science Center where we viewed Body Worlds2, uses the terms complexity and elegance to describe the display. It is true that through this exhibit one can see, for the first time, if one is not a medical practitioner, how the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bone structures provide movement, balance, and symmetry to the human body.

Not only are the twenty cadavers posed as though they were vital and engaged in activity thus showing the extension of movement, but the body parts, both diseased and healthy displayed side by side in glass cabinets, point out the effects of certain negative habits or environments on the body. The Philadelphia exhibition includes a model with diseased smoker’s lungs. Normal livers are dis[played beside distended, diseased livers to show the effects of life stye practices.
It is a quiet delight to see parents pointing out body parts to their children who respectfully make note of the effects of certain life style choices. Surely this exhibit will have more influence on children’s choices in future than any media informational. The graphic nature of this display may offend some, but every one with whom I interacted throughout the exhibition expressed wonder and amazement at the strong visual impression the exhibit provided.

Can this exhibit be described as artistic? Indeed! There is no doubt that this is an artistic mix of science and art coming together as all good museum exhibitions tend to do. The symmetry and beauty that is available in holographic displays of the natural environment, the Hubble photographs of outer space, and the beauty of geometric fractals are now joined by BodyWorks2, static but in motion. Body Worlds2 is a beautiful display of the human. Each cadaver, minus his or her skin, resonates a personality, an individual who made a unique contribution to the world in which he or she lived. There is a sense of honouring humanity here.

Linda Manley, a year 11 public school science teacher commented, “Body Worlds2? Although it seems funny, I guess my first impression was how small the lungs are! I always thought their size was much larger. I would encourage anyone who has ever wondered how our bodies function to see this truly amazing display of the human experience ”.

Becca Frenel, another secondary school teacher, who saw the exhibit in Los Angeles in February 2005 commented, “I loved Body Worlds2 - the amazing muscles and tissues that connect us and support us and hold us together - loved it - fascinating”.

Some have noted the similarity between the work done by Leonardo Da Vinci who exhumed bodies and drew the musculature and underlying bones and tendons and the work of Gunther von Hagens who allows us to see how the body works and what constitutes healthy living. This array of plastinated human corpses is not a funeral. It is instead a celebration, not only of the lives of each of the cadavers, but also of all humanity, of the amazing manner in which beings function on a physical level.

If I ever thought of the body as a temple, it was always as a temple that held the personality. After lingering in von Hagen’s display of plastinated bodies, I am sure that the body itself is as amazing, complex, and beautiful in it’s functioning as the personality is in introducing that same body to the world. Seeing this exhibit can be equated with having a spiritual experience of awe and respect for what it means to be human, what it means to be alive on this planet.

In the final display of the exhibition, behind artistic curtaining so that those who wish to avoid it may, stands a cadaver of a young pregnant woman. This 30+-year-old pregnant female died along with her foetus. Many question the use of her body, but seeing the foetus snuggled so comfortably inside the opened uterus and the mother’s protecting hands around her abdomen, leaves one with a great sadness for the death of mother and child and a sense of wonder at having had the opportunity to see the closeness, the physical connection between the two.

It is ironic that BodyWorlds2 has found it’s current home in the USA where no national health insurance is available. Perhaps that means that enthusiastic museum viewers believe the best insurance is knowing how one’s body works and what one must do in order to remain as healthful as possible.

Australians of all ages will find this exhibition to be not only worth the small cost (currently $12.50 – $16.75 American) entrance fee, but also a celebration of what it means to be human.


BodyWorlds, (Oct 2005).

BodyWorlds, (September 2005).

Bodyworlds - a review of the notorious 'Corpse Show', (Oct 2005).

Body Zone, Queensland Museum South Bank – Sciencentre, Oct, 2005).