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Exquisite Corpses

Milwaukee Public Museum hosts Body Worlds

Jan. 17, 2008
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Modern man is a mass of contradictions—especially when it comes to evidence of his own mortality. One needs only to compare the unsurpassed gore of today’s horror films and video games and the popularity of shows like “C.S.I.” with the outrage the Body Worlds exhibit has provoked in some circles.

Despite our increasing insensitivity to all manner of horrors, be they real or contrived, it seems there are still barriers we hesitate to cross—the most forbidding of which seems to be what lurks beneath our very own skin.

On the other hand, the millions of visitors worldwide who’ve visited the Body Worlds exhibits to date prove that seeing the human body bereft of all its mystery, not to mention its skin, is fascinating. Its reception in the United States has been overwhelmingly positive, and starting Jan. 18 Milwaukee audiences have the opportunity to indulge their own curiosity when the much-talked-about exhibit comes to the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Bodies laid bare

The Exhibition`s creator is Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist and founder of the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, who has pioneered a process of preserving anatomical specimens by replacing bodily fluids with a plastic polymer and then curing the cadaver with heat or gas. The results of the process are odorless and distinctly pliable human specimens that appear almost lifelike in their animated postures, but for the small fact that their skin is removed to reveal the complex systems beneath. Bone structure, musculature, vital organs and nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and reproductive systems can be examined in isolation or as part of an integrated whole in the form of dramatically arranged “plastinates,” whole body specimens with skin removed but often with eyes, lips and even eyelashes intact.

The most striking plastinates are “The Drawer Man,” a body from which sections are cut away and pulled out and slid apart to show the compact anatomical structure within; “The Chess Player,” whose skull is peeled back to reveal his brain as he contemplates the strategic move he’ll never actually make; and “The Longitudinally Expanded Body” and “The Organ Man,” each of which is extruded vertically or laterally, respectively, like a technical drawing of a machine or building, allowing the eye to make connections between the parts and the whole. “The Horseman” is an arresting vision of brains over brawn, the horse’s superior musculature eclipsed by the superior human brain brandished by the rider. There are preserved fetuses at various stages of development, even a plastinate of a pregnant woman with stomach and womb sliced open to reveal the five-monthold fetus within.

In some ways the exhibit is akin to a waxwork museum. One main difference is that the bodies were once living beings (a scenario hitherto only visited in the most lurid horror films). It’s certainly not bereft of an element of showmanship. The bodies are arranged to optimize their dramatic effect, often making cultural allusions that range from the cerebral to the plebeian. “The Drawer Man” is a three dimensional representation of a figure in Salvador Dali’s Burning Giraffe and “The Archer” is comparable to a lithe heroine of a Japanese martial-arts movie, with brain trailing behind her. However, despite these clear allusions, Angelina Whalley, von Hagen’s wife and co-creator of the exhibit, denies any attempt to aspire to artwork.

“We are not claiming specimens on display should be regarded as art,” she said. In fact, the intention of making them appear “aesthetically appealing,” as she put it, is in response to demands made by the first visitors to the exhibits in Japan.

“The first bodies we had on display were posed in a quite regular anatomical position, very stiff and straight. And although people were grateful of the opportunity to see them, they were a little frightened because the specimens looked so dead,” Whalley said. “That’s when we were reminded by the old anatomists from the Renaissance that the specimens in their drawings are in very lifelike positions, and that is what we are trying to convey in our exhibitions; that the body is absolutely beautifully made and that it’s natural what we’re seeing in the exhibit.”

Courting Controversy

Despite Whalley’s belief in the unimpeachable decorum of the exhibition, the Body Worlds exhibits have enjoyed more than their fair share of controversy. An expose in The New York Times in 2006 shed rather seedy light on the factories in China in which the Institute of Plastination processes its specimens, referring to it as a “modern mummification factory,” and questions regarding the acquisition of the bodies used by the institute have been raised time and again. The press has likewise had a field day with the quirky originator himself, likening him to circus showman P.T. Barnum, Dr. Frankenstein—even a rather unfavorable comparison with Nazi death-camp doctor Josef Mengele. In the past, von Hagens himself has admitted that a measure of controversy is not altogether bad for business; in fact it’s rather the contrary. A Chicago Tribune story in 2005 reports him as saying, “I enjoy sensationalism, because sensationalism means curiosity.” He’s been known for outrageous publicity stunts and public spectacles such as the televised autopsy he performed in England in 2002, the first since public autopsies were banned by Britain’s Anatomy Act in 1832.

The main thrust of the criticism seems to stem from religious groups that question the manner in which von Hagens slices and dices corpses for public display. The dignified treatment of the deceased through a set of prescribed rituals is common to many faiths; Judaism and Islam both share particularly stringent rules regarding the treatment of the body after death. And regardless of religious belief, there’s something very chilling about seeing the press video of a frozen corpse being sliced to a quarter-inch thickness through a band saw (the inspiration for which, according to the exhibit catalog, came to von Hagens from a meat-slicer at a butcher’s shop).

What’s most surprising, however, is the Institute of Plastination’s claims that much of their opposition has come from anatomical institutes that criticize von Hagens for sensationalizing anatomy with an eye to profiting from it. Von Hagens has in turn accused such establishments of hording knowledge and depriving laypeople of access to the mysteries of their very own bodies. He claims in numerous publications to “democratize anatomy.”

Anatomists in the United Kingdom are particularly skeptical. Tony Firth, professor of anatomy at Imperial College in London, said this is partly attributable to the fact that “Body Worlds” came to London while the public was still reeling from the deeply unethical practices revealed at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, where organs of deceased babies and children were removed, retained and destroyed without their parents’ knowledge.

“The result was a serious drop in the number of people bequeathing their bodies for anatomical use,” he said. “It was evident from correspondence received by the London Anatomy Office that a significant number of potential donors feared (groundlessly) that their bodies might be used for public exhibitions like Body Worlds.” Therefore, some critics maintain that medical schools in the United Kingdom have indirectly suffered from exhibits like Body Worlds.

Many anatomists in Milwaukee, however, seem to welcome the exhibit. Among them is Leah Dvorak, a clinical associate professor at UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Human Movement Sciences who has seen both Body Worlds 1 and 2.

“I think it’s wonderful … it does a fantastic job of showing the beauty and awesomeness of the human body,” Dvorak said. She said that the pathology section of the exhibit is particularly impressive, although it is often given less coverage than the more dramatic specimens.

“A lot of the problems people have with their bodies are invisible to them because they’re on the inside,” she said. “If they could see what was happening to their arteries when they failed to exercise or ate the wrong foods, they’d feel differently about it.”

Despite advances that are being made in developing computer-generated models of the anatomy, she believes an exhibit like this offers a unique educational opportunity for anatomy students.

“The human body is a three-dimensional structure and seeing a two-dimensional computer screen is not the same thing as seeing the real thing in front of you … if you ask any student who’s taken a gross anatomy dissection course, they’ll tell you the same thing.”

Joseph Besharse, chair of the Department of Neurobiology, Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin, hasn’t yet seen the exhibition, but said that based on what he’s heard so far, he anticipates it will be a valuable educational experience for the general public, for whom he expects the exhibit is primarily designed. However, Besharse said he’s somewhat ambivalent about its educational value for anatomy students.

“I’m not sure this would be particularly useful to them,” he said. “This would not be the way we would generally go about teaching general anatomy.” Nevertheless, he admits that the exhibit could act as a supplement to the knowledge of anatomy that students acquire through dissection. “There’s nothing wrong with knowing about the organization of the body and there’s a potential that young people will become interested in science and medicine from something of this sort,” he said.

The Profits of Plastination

One thing not in doubt is that plastination is big business. The exhibit has enjoyed international success, spawning numerous copycats and turning plastination into a hot industry. Von Hagens has created two more exhibits in addition to the original and these have traveled around parts of Asia, Europe and North America, bringing in record numbers of visitors at institutions worldwide.

Among the American institutions is Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the second museum in the States to host the exhibit. It first came to the museum in 2005, when it drew more than 800,000 visitors.

“It was so well received we had to extend museum hours and were overwhelmed with requests to host it again,” said Lisa Miner, the museum’s director of public relations. They did so in 2007, and again the exhibit met with immense popularity. “We had guests of all ages: school groups, seniors, couples,” Miner said.

According to Miner, media outlets have overemphasized the controversy surrounding the exhibition. “We have seen it provoke no controversy here,” she stated. “The media has propelled that idea.”

She added that the benefits of the exhibit far outweigh any misgivings visitors might have about its tastefulness.

“It’s overwhelmingly educational— it offers ways of seeing the human body you’d never imagine or have access to,” she said. “It doesn’t preach to you … you make the connections yourself. People have left cigarette packs at the exhibit, saying they’re going to quit smoking.”

The exhibit, which covers approximately 15,000 square feet, will be the biggest exhibit hosted by the Milwaukee Public Museum to date, and Dan Finley, the museum’s CEO, is confident it will see record attendance. In light of the museum’s rather precarious financial position, it could very well be just what the doctor ordered.

“This is regarded as the greatest international exhibition there’s ever been,” Finley said. “It’s a good indicator to the community that the museum is back on track because this exhibition only goes to the finest museums in the world.”

Finley said that controversy within the Milwaukee community has been minimal. “There’s been a little,” Finley noted. “The exhibition has been well vetted…so a lot of the controversy has been mitigated.”

The American reception of the exhibit has been far more enthusiastic than Europe’s and part of that has to do with the way in which it’s been packaged and the venues in which von Hagens has exhibited his collection. In the United States, the exhibit has been shown primarily at science museums, whereas in Europe it has been displayed in venues with a less-than-savory history, such as a converted slaughterhouse in Brussels, Belgium, a former erotic museum in Hamburg, Germany—von Hagens even exhibited some specimens in London’s Planet Hollywood.

Like many other institutions in the United States that have hosted the Body Worlds exhibit, the Milwaukee Public Museum invited religious leaders and other members of the community to a meeting last fall, allowing them to raise objections and concerns.

“They did [raise some concerns],” Finley said. “But by and large they said this is an important exhibition and they would recommend it come here.”

He said the primary issue for them was the means by which the bodies were acquired, and the museum was able to assure them that there is paperwork accompanying each donor. The general enthusiasm the exhibit has excited is evident in the schools statewide that have signed up for tours of the exhibit.

How the public perceives Body Worlds appears to depend on the light under which people choose to examine it. A concerted effort to come to grips with the anatomy, either human or animal, can be traced back to prehistoric man. We also see this fascination in whimsical illustrations of posing and prancing cadavers and anatomical mannequins dating from the 18th century.

Body Worlds owes its overwhelming success to modern man’s prevailing fascination with his own mortal coil. But how much of this is attributable to the morbid delight with which people used to watch public executions and freak shows? Similarly, one might also extend this skepticism toward critics of the exhibit, and question whether their objections are based on anything other than squeamishness in the face of death.

Again we can turn to past civilizations in search of a more accepting relationship with death, reflected in rituals and celebrations for the dead. Today, many people view death with discomfort, banishing the dead and dying to remote and sanitized settings. At the very least, exhibits like Body Worlds can be commended for forcing the living to walk unflinchingly among the dead.


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