Interesting Things on the Move
BODY WORLDS and Gunther von Hagens
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis —February 17, 2011
The extraordinary work of German anatomist and physician Dr. Gunther von Hagens continues to be as visually and intellectually startling today as it was when it first appeared decades ago. Over 32 million visitors worldwide have seen von Hagens’ “BODY WORLDS: The Anatomical Exhibition of Human Bodies,” a series of traveling exhibits that illustrate the human body’s circulatory, reproductive and locomotive systems in a unique way—by presenting a total of more than 200 actual human bodies preserved in unexpectedly realistic poses, along with dozens of individual organs, and translucent body slices. It affords an unprecedented view of the human body’s interior, rivaling what was once available only to researchers and anatomy students.
Gunther von Hagens and what may be his greatest, most complex work of Plastination, "rearing horse with rider" (Photo © Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany, www.bodyworlds.com.
All rights reserved.)
For example, in “The Chess Player,” a male figure is hunched over a chessboard, apparently deliberating a response to a brilliant move (resembling a bit the so-called Danish gambit) but then you see that his skin has been removed and that both his brain and spinal column are exposed. Joining “The Chess Player” are such astonishing figures as "The Skin Man," who holds aloft his entire skin (the body’s largest and heaviest organ) piled onto his hand in a single piece. Also populating BODY WORLDS is “The Runner,” “The Jumping Dancer,” “Football Gladiators,” the “Lady of Arteries and Bones,” “The Basketball Player,” "The Ring Gymnast," and perhaps the most impressive piece of them all, “Rearing Horse With Rider.”
When “BODY WORLDS 2: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies,” appeared at the Maryland Science Center on February 2, 2008, U.S. East Coast visitors and media people encountered a new component to the show: “The Brain: Our Three Pound Gem.” Inspired by the latest discoveries in neuroscience on brain development and function, brain disease and disorders, and brain performance and improvement, “The Brain” gives the visitor a truly unmatched encounter with the human brain in both physical and abstract terms.
The "thinker," something of a play upon rodin's sculture, was part of "the brain, our three pound gem," a component of the body worlds exhibition. (Photo © Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany, www.bodyworlds.com.
All rights reserved.)
Working boldly at the juncture of science, medicine, and art, von Hagens and his team are craftsmen of remarkable skill, creating highly finished, delicately wrought displays of exquisite refinement and creativity. His achievement has never been equaled, let alone, excelled, for von Hagens himself invented the process by which the bodies are preserved. Called Plastination, the idea came to von Hagens in 1977 while at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Anatomy.
To be more precise, Plastination involves using a vacuum to extract and replace bodily fluids and soluble fats with reactive fluid plastics (resins and elastomers) then curing them with light, heat, and certain gases, which provides the flexibility, strength and permanence necessary to preserve and display specimens in starkly realistic appearances without resorting to glass barriers or liquid formaldehyde.
Von Hagens patented the Plastination process between 1977 and 1982 and has continually improved on it ever since. Von Hagens founded the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany in 1993. Together they first showed plastinated bodies in Japan in 1995, drawing in excess of three million visitors. The Institute maintains three international centers of plastination: in Germany, Kyrgyzstan and China.
"The soccer players," is a another remarkably life-like achievement. (Photo © Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany, www.bodyworlds.com.
All rights reserved.)
One of the main themes of BODY WORLDS is not just to provide an in-depth view of the intricate human body, but also to indulge in comparative anatomy, displaying the physiology and effects of lifestyle choices and disease on the human body. After all, real human bodies are able to show the details of disease and anatomy that can only be roughly approximated with models. The “real thing”—actual specimens—can be a lot more interesting and informative than even the best plastic models or photographs. They also enable visitors to understand the unique internal as well as external features of each body.
Some faint-hearted or religious folk inevitably bring up objections to the exhibit, alluding to religious impiety and/or claiming that such things are a violation of an individual’s dignity, despite the fact that the bodies are from individuals who bequeathed that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibitions. (Currently, the Institute for Plastination has a donor roster of 8000 individuals or which 490 are already deceased.)
Moreover, von Hagens has when necessary engaged in meticulous prior solicitation of critics well-qualified to judge the value of his work—ethicists, clergy and medical figures—who have participated in discussion groups in communities where BODY WORLDS was to be exhibited. Inevitably BODY WORLDS always got “the green light.” Thus, to assert that von Hagens’ intention is both serious and educational is as true as the naysayers’ claims are absurd. Ironically, that such controversy exists at all is, in a sense, another tribute to von Hagen’s standing in the world of anatomy, chemistry, and public education, a position as singular as the man himself.
And yet, the sheer virtuosity of von Hagens can more properly be classed with what the great scientists and physicians of the 19th century used to do—provide a repertoire of popular theatrical public demonstrations of scientific and medical wonders. Although the 19th century was the golden age of such demonstrations, one can even gaze back as far as the 17th century and see scientists performing public experiments to both impress and inform the lay public.
Indeed, in assembling the early BODY WORLDS exhibits, von Hagens was influenced by anatomists and anatomical drawings of the Renaissance. The Skin Man, for example, is inspired by a similarly-posed figure in a 16th century copper engraving in an anatomy book published in Rome in 1556, Historia de la composicion del cuorpo humano, by the Renaissance anatomist, Juan Valverde de Hamusco. (With drawings by the artist and anatomist Gaspar Becerra—who helped Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chaptel— and transferred to copper plates by Nicolas Beatrizet.)
In contrast to the somewhat grotesque presentations of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, BODY WORLDS offers an intellectual and ethical treatment of its subject combining the elements of both science and art.
On Wednesday, November 20, 2002, having already created a sensation in London with his Body Worlds exhibition, von Hagens delivered the first public autopsy in Britain in 170 years, conducted in an art gallery in Brick Lane, London, before a paying audience of 500 onlookers. Also present was a TV camera crew from a network planning to broadcast an edited version of footage.
Von Hagen’s demonstration was in sync with the public’s fascination with forensic pathology, thanks to TV dramas such as the American CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Britain’s Silent Witness. Von Hagens said he wanted to bring medical knowledge to a wider audience.
“There is huge demand among the public to see what an autopsy entails, especially in light of the fact that this procedure can be ordered on them or their loved ones without their consent according to British law,” von Hagens told the press at the time.
BODY WORLDS and von Hagens both appear to fill an informational vacuum in a world where, as the ancient Greeks said, “Man is the measure of all things.”
Original, precedent-setting, acclaimed, and attendance-breaking, the new BODY WORLDS Vital exhibit premiered at The Tech Museum in San Jose, California. Showing the authentic human bodies in health, distress and disease, it was open for a limited engagement in association with Team San Jose. Later, on March 18, 2011, BODY WORLDS & the Cycle of Life came to the Museum of Science & Industry on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. BODY WORLDS exhibits periodically make appearances in the United States.
Go see it. You’ll never look at yourself in the mirror quite the same way ever again.