What is the “Body Worlds” exhibit?
Body Worlds is a traveling exhibition by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens in which human and other animal bodies are preserved and displayed through a special process invented by von Hagens known as “plastination”.
The exhibit is controversial for its gruesome display of the deceased, often posed in humorous or even erotic positions. There have been 6 unique Body Worlds presentations since the exhibition’s inception in 1995, and the exhibits have traveled to over 50 museums in America, Europe, and Asia.
Each Body Worlds exhibition contains around 25 full body “plastinates” with special views of organs that have been expanded or otherwise displayed to show the inner workings of the human body. Often, von Hagens displays organs shown in positions that “enhance the role of certain systems”. More than 200 specimens of real human organs and body systems are displayed behind glass cases, with the point of the exhibitions appearing to be the display of medical conditions and disease.
Some of the specimens include prosthetics or other surgical implants like heart valves, transplanted organs, and artificial hip and knee joints. Also featured prominently in the original Body Worlds exhibit is a liver with cirrhosis and the stereotypical “lungs of a smoker” displayed next to the lungs of a non smoker. Placed side by side, these lungs do provide good evidence of the harmful effects of smoking. However, not all of the plastinate bodies on exhibit at Body Worlds are educational. Many have protested van Hagen’s display featuring fetuses and embryos, many with birth defects and other horrible medical issues.
von Hagen’s newest display, called “The Cycle of Life”, premiered in Germany’s capital on Thursday, May 7, 2009. It has made headlines around the world for its positioning of some of the plastinate bodies in sexual positions. While von Hagen’s new erotic display does not break any German laws, it has been cited in the German press as going “against good taste”, and there are already protestors ready to shut the exhibit down.
To produce specimens for his Body Worlds exhibitions, von Hagens employs over 300 people across five laboratories in three different countries: China, Germany and Kyrgyzstan. Each of these laboratories employs a different specialty – for instance, the China laboratory focuses on the plastination of animal specimens, while the lab in Kyrgyzstan does most of the human body work. According to von Hagens, one of the most difficult specimens to create was a full size giraffe that appeared in von Hagen’s Body Worlds & The Mirror of Time exhibit. The specimen reportedly took three years to complete. Also of interest – plastinated bodies tend to weigh about the same as the original live specimen, due to the addition of plastics into the body cavity. This makes for one heavy plastinated giraffe. Reportedly, ten people are required to move the giraffe.
von Hagens is a controversial character. Known in his native Germany as “Dr. Death”, he has been in trouble for his morbid work in the past. When asked about his most recent work, which combines images of sex and death, von Hagens told Germany’s biggest newspaper Bild that “death and sex are both taboo topics. I’m bringing them together. Death belongs to life.” He went on to say that “without sex, no life would exist.” While no one can argue against that, people are upset that an exhibit such as this is being shown in a public forum.
Von Hagens’ work has divided opinion in the past, with critics often doubting his scientific motives and accusing him of shocking people to gain publicity. For instance, in 2002 he performed a public autopsy for BBC Channel 4 — the first public autopsy in Great Britain for over 170 years. This broadcast earned von Hagens hundreds of complaints and even death threats. British authorities also threatened to arrest von Hagens after declaring the procedure illegal.
von Hagens justifies his actions as a sort of “demystifying the post mortem examination,” and publicly compares his critics to “medieval priests who would not allow ordinary people to read the Bible.”
The newest Body Worlds exhibit will run in Germany through the summer before moving on to an as yet undisclosed location.