Updated 18 September 2014

Body Worlds: curious corpses

Body Worlds, the famous travelling show of human remains, has opened to some excitement. But is it OK to enjoy looking at corpses?


A brain, trailing its major nerves like thin grey tentacles. A peaceful, chubby-faced human head, perfectly intact except that it has been neatly bisected and opened to view. A skinned man playing a saxophone. A bright red, unimaginably delicate form of a rabbit, consisting only of its intricate network of blood vessels. 

These are some of the novel sights that await visitors at the Body Worlds: Cycle of Life exhibition now running at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront.

No doubt it will attract capacity crowds, as the show has done all over the world: over 35 million curious people have viewed various versions of the exhibit, making this the top travelling show in history – and one of the most controversial.

The special lure of Body Worlds is not so much that it teaches us more about our corporeal selves, nor that it allows spectacular visual access to the body that non-medics don't usually have – these are after all available to us by looking at models and watching movies.

What's different about this exhibit, and makes millions unable to look away, is that it is comprised, not to mince words about it, of corpses.

Plastic people

The specimens on display – from smokers' blackened lungs and drinkers' cirrhotic livers, to entire bodies – are all dead human tissue preserved by plastination, a technique pioneered by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, Body Worlds' founder.

“Plastinates”, as such specimens are known, are created by removing water from the tissue and replacing it with liquid silicon. This renders them surprisingly free of the “gross-out” factor. These are not soggy bits and pieces lolling in discoloured formalin; the plastinates are clean, odourless and have a slightly laquered sheen. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd take these for very well made models.

But models they are not. The anonymous specimens have all been donated, mostly, according to Angelina Whalley,  von Hagens' wife and the curator of Body Worlds, by people inspired to do so after visiting the exhibition.

And there is plenty more material available for future exhibits: Body Worlds has some 13 000 potential future donors in their database.

Strange life in death

The most startling and controversial specimens in the exhibit are not the organs displayed, even those garishly distorted and discoloured by disease, but the whole body plastinates in dramatic poses.

These have had most of their skin removed to reveal underlying musculature, but certain external elements like noses, eyebrows and breasts are retained for "humanness". Cycle of Life boasts, for example, a highjumper, a “molting woman” stepping out of her discarded skin and hair, and a copulating couple that leaves no doubt as to what goes anatomically where.

The function of the posed plastinates, says Dr Whalley, is to allow visitors to relate better to them, and see their own selves reflected.

Some visitors are bound to take issue with the plastinates on ethical and aesthetic grounds. Previously, the plastinates have been criticized for being in poor taste, or sexist (male figures are shown in more active, athletic poses; female ones tend to be more passive, or relate more often to reproduction).

At the Cape Town launch yesterday, the majority of visitors were engrossed and impressed, including several members of University of Cape Town's  medical community, who have collectively endorsed Body Worlds.

Some viewers were left feeling uneasy though. Among the less adulatory impressions were that it was disturbing and somewhat grotesque to see dead bodies in the vital postures of the living, bringing schlock-horror zombies to mind. A few people said they found the plastinates a bit  tasteless, or “kitsch”.

Certain of the figures, such as the “Woman on a swing”, sitting open-legged with coy expression and youthful breasts intact, and of course not forgetting the amorous couple, are, if not exactly pornographic then certainly suggestive. It's at these points in the course of viewing the exhibition that its purported educational goal starts to wear a little thin and seem merely a disguise, or excuse, for sensationalism.

On the other hand, there's a compelling argument that such exhibits engage the lay person far more fully and emotionally than traditional clinical specimens, and in this way their health messages pack a potent punch. The Von Hagens' are adamant that the main aim of Body Worlds is lay person education and preventative medicine.

Dr Whalley reports that surveys they have run with visitors six months after seeing an exhibit suggest that there are real public health benefits: 9% of respondents claimed they had given up smoking because of Body Worlds, while over 30% claimed they'd improved their eating or exercise habits.

At the very first exhibition in Japan in 1995, Whalley says, a young woman moved to tears by the experience told her and von Hagens that she had attempted suicide three times, but would never do so again having seen "how extraordinary she was beneath the skin".

 - Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, October 2012

Should non-medical people be able to view real human specimens, displayed as “edutainment”? Add your thoughts to the discussion below.

Body Worlds runs until 31 January 2013 at the V&A Waterfront, Breakwater Boulevard, Cape Town. The exhibition is open to all ages; children should be accompanied by an adult and have parental permission to attend. The plastinate of the couple having sexual intercourse is in its own partially enclosed space with a warning label posted outside. See the Body Worlds website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Read more:
A greener way to go
Not just burial or cremation

Video: Human body exhibition (not for more sensitive viewers)


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