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Body Worlds Makes Anatomy Engrossing, Not Gross

Museum exhibit makes cadavers an art form and dissection uncomfortably real.

By Alan Burdick
Mar 28, 2004 6:00 AMJul 19, 2023 4:04 PM


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It’s still dark in Stuttgart, but already a line is forming outside the Hanns-Martin Shleyer convention hall for the 6 a.m. opening of Body Worlds, the startling and controversial exhibit created by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. One promotional brochure describes Body Worlds as “a medical dictionary in three dimensions,” and no doubt a few visitors have come to see precisely that. It is a fair guess, however, that most viewers by far are here to behold the spectacle of authenticity promised in the touring exhibition’s tagline: “The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.”

Real human bodies. Von Hagens has invented a chemical process that effectively transforms the tissues and organs of cadavers into a lifelike, pliable plastic, which he then painstakingly dissects and places on display. His works are not pallid husks laid out on slabs. They are fleshy pink, peeled, pulled apart, and displayed in dynamic, even outrageous poses. A figure labeled Muscle Man stands upright, flayed bare and proudly dangling his full cloak of skin from one hand. “Reclining Woman in the Eighth Month of Pregnancy” is as advertised: a Venus-like figure lying on her side, gazing at the viewer and casually displaying her opened midsection to reveal a fully developed fetus.

This is not your grandmother’s funeral parlor. Von Hagens has exploded the human form, and with it, virtually every accepted convention about the proper relationship between the living and the dead. To his detractors, the result is a violation, an abomination even: Human remains deserve a great deal more respect than Body Worlds seems to confer with its pole-vaulting, goal-leaping, basketball-dribbling poses. Von Hagens has fended off Catholic picketers and accusations of grave robbing. In London, where the exhibit ran for 11 months in 2002 and 2003, tabloid headlines ranged from the hesitantly charitable (“Gratuitous gore—or the most amazing art exhibition ever?”) to the openly dismissive (“Dr. Death and his traveling freak show”). Many of his professional colleagues are especially skeptical. “It’s hotdog anatomy,” says Gretchen Worden, curator of the Mütter Museum, the Philadelphia College of Physicians’ 19th-century museum of pathology. “He’s playing with dead bodies.”

Von Hagens counters that the exhibit is not only educational but beautiful: It reclaims the human cadaver from the lurid probing of forensic dramas like Silence of the Lambs and CSI, returning it to its pre-Victorian status as a source of humility and wonder. “The movie industry has made a fortune criminalizing anatomy,” he says. “I’m trying to create another aesthetic.”

The more von Hagens talks, the clearer it becomes that the agenda driving Body Worlds is neither strictly scientific nor artistic but rather—or in addition—political. A resident of totalitarian East Germany for 25 years, von Hagens spent two years in jail for attempting to defect. Now he has a bone to pick with authority—politicians who claim that certain educational exhibits are unfit for public eyes, scientists who claim exclusive viewing rights to the human anatomy—anyone, in short, who insists that it is better not to see, ask, or judge for oneself. Body Worlds is a stick in the eye of the willfully blind. “It’s a redemocratization,” von Hagens says. “The layperson should have the same right to see.” That philosophy was central to his decision, in November 2002, to conduct an autopsy before a live London audience—an act considered illegal in Britain for the past 170 years. He’s still waiting to hear if Scotland Yard will file charges.

Perhaps intentionally, the controversy around Body Worlds has only added to its magnetic appeal. Since the touring exhibition was unveiled in 1996, more than 13 million people in Europe and Asia have paid to see it. To accommodate the crowd in Stuttgart, where the show would run for only nine days, the doors stayed open from 6 a.m. until midnight. For von Hagens, the crowds offer his most emphatic retort to his various critics: If what he has to show is so unseemly, why is the whole world lining up to see it?

“Nothing should be hidden,” von Hagens says. It’s shortly after 9 a.m., and already the Stuttgart exhibition hall is crowded to its 1,000-person capacity—a throng of animate bodies craning their necks to inspect their bared, inanimate brethren. Von Hagens himself is tall and slender, affable but pale—a jovial mortician in white socks and Birkenstocks. He would be anonymous in a crowd but for a homburg hat he wears at all times—in all photographs, during interviews, on overnight flights from one side of the world to the other. To avoid the crowd, he leads us to the far end of a large room cordoned off from the public. Within minutes, however, a cluster of autograph seekers has gathered at the cordon, awaiting the man in the hat.

Von Hagens invented plastination to counter anatomy’s timeworn nemesis: time itself. Bodies decay with alarming speed; it is all an anatomist can do to study their finer structures before they fade and to preserve them soundly. As an anatomy assistant in Heidelberg in the 1970s, von Hagens became obsessed with specimens embedded in Plexiglas. Nice, he thought, but wouldn’t it be better—wouldn’t the viewing experience be more transparent—if the plastic was inside the specimen? He began experimenting with a method that, under vacuum pressure, removes the original fluids from a specimen and effectively replaces them with plastic polymers. His first success, a kidney shrunken to a black lump, spurred him on. He called his technique “polymer impregnation of perishable, biological specimens,” thought twice, and settled on “plastination.”

After refining and patenting his technique, von Hagens took plastination on the road to showcase its wonders to fellow anatomists. Janitors, he quickly found, were as captivated as his colleagues. He expanded his range, preserving whole bodies, cutting them with a ham slicer and peeling them open. He created a road show for the general public; Body Worlds was born. To supply the exhibits, von Hagens now employs more than 200 skilled anatomists in two workshops in China and Kyrgyzstan. Von Hagens emphasizes that the bodies and body parts that appear in Body Worlds are provided entirely by unpaid volunteers, everyday folks who donate their remains to him specifically for this purpose. One exhibit in the show is devoted expressly to explaining the donation process and even permits new donors to sign up—which they do, in droves. Hundreds of donors commit their postmortem parts to von Hagens every year, some out of pure educational altruism, others to give their lives lasting meaning, still others to secure their 15 minutes of fame, if only for their disembodied liver.

Von Hagens hopes to bring Body Worlds to the United States before too long—just as soon as he finds a museum, gallery space, or abandoned warehouse brave enough to host him. “I know it would be a big hit,” he says. “Americans are very body-minded. But it’s also a country of zealots. I’ll bring it to the people at the proper time and at the proper place.”

As an exhibition, Body Worlds is laid out something like an automotive show. It begins with that most basic element, the skeleton—the iconic white frame that deep down, allegedly, is us. Two dozen full-body figures follow, each one more inside out than the last: a striding skeleton—the Runner—with all its muscles and tendons streaming backward off its bones like windblown ribbons; the skin-flaunting Muscle Man; the Goalkeeper, a muscular (and skinless) figure suspended horizontally in the air, one hand reaching out for a soccer ball, the other holding its full consignment of internal organs.

Between these stations, laid out in glass cases, are the parts: hearts, brains, livers, bowels, genitalia. Ever wonder what a real womb looks like? Or how 23 feet of intestine actually fits inside a human abdomen? See this exhibit and you’ll know. Body Worlds offers no portrait of perfection. The viewer is treated to enlarged spleens, nicotine-charred lungs, a cerebral cortex ravaged by Alzheimer’s. No kidney stone is left unturned. The overall effect is a picture of health through subtraction, the robustness of the human body still apparent through a multitude of its failures. The visitor quickly comes to understand that there is no generic human form but rather infinite variations on the human theme.

The total effect is engrossing yet somehow never gross. The plastination process preserves the specimens in incredible detail—muscles are discernible down to their individual fibers—yet with enough similarity to plastic that visitors are not afraid to peer closely and at length. To ease the viewer’s uneasiness, von Hagens has assiduously stripped each specimen of its previous owner’s identity. Faces have been removed or sufficiently deconstructed to be indiscernible. (Eerily, the plastination process preserves hair, eyelashes, and even tattoos, reminders that the figures are still individual, if anonymous.)

Anonymity is a legal necessity as much as an aesthetic choice. A cadaver with an identity is a corpse, and a room full of corpses would constitute an illegal cemetery. Von Hagens contends that his specimens fall into the same epistemological category as mummies and classroom skeletons. “Plastinates are not objects of individual memory,” he says. “They are new presentations of former human beings.”

He is also carefully navigating around Article 1 of the German constitution, which expressly states that “the dignity of man is inviolable,” a phrase that has been invoked in German courts to contest everything from pornography to dwarf tossing. German officials permitted Body Worlds to open in Stuttgart only if von Hagens agreed to remove certain undignifying elements—chiefly the basketball and the soccer ball held by the Basketball Player and the Goalkeeper, respectively. (The figures themselves were allowed to remain.)

This isn’t enough to assuage some of von Hagens’s critics. “It’s amazing stuff,” says Michael Sappol, curator and historian at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. “He’s a great anatomist, technically superb. But most anatomists are in a panic about him.” Prior to the 19th century, anatomic illustrations were playful; a figure might wink at the viewer or stride happily across the page.

With the rise of anatomy as a profession, however, that visual mood was stamped out—in part to reassure the public that anatomists were objective scientists, not lurid, grave-robbing voyeurs. To many of his contemporary colleagues, Sappol says, von Hagens’s offense is twofold: He breaks the dissectors’ “cult of knowledge” by baring everything to the public, and he reintroduces a little emotion to the experience. “We’re shielded from death and dead bodies,” Sappol says. “So this is exciting and a bit naughty.”

Von Hagens in turn insists that the primary purpose of Body Worlds is to educate. Indeed, the exhibition comes with a stultifying amount of medical information. Every specimen large or small is accompanied by a placard, caption, or annotation; a visitor’s head soon swims with descriptions of inguinal ligaments and adipose capsules. The self-promotional description of the show as a Gray’s Anatomy in three dimensions is not far off the mark. The audio guide, read in monotone by von Hagens himself, is dull enough to put the dead to sleep.

And if the specimens on display arrest the eye—if they hold their skins for the visitor to inspect, or if they lean forward and wink one eye, challenging the viewer not to look—well, what’s wrong with that? Von Hagens offers the analogy of a history teacher: Are you more inclined to pay attention and learn something from a vivacious young teacher or from a droning, smelly slob? “We dress up when we present something,” he argues. “So these specimens are dressed up anatomically.”

That might sound like the highbrow rationalization of a circus barker. An hour or two with the crowd at Body Worlds, however, seems to bear him out. One might expect the atmosphere of a freak show; instead, the mood around the specimens is pensive and subdued. To wander among them is an intimate and oddly moving experience, like walking through houses emptied of their inhabitants, or peering into the clothes closets of the recently deceased. The crowd is hushed, engaged in what can only be described as mass introspection: That body is me, is you—except that one is unoccupied while, by some miracle, this one still is.

Von Hagens performs an amazing sleight of hand. By overwhelming the visitor with medical minutiae, he somehow manages to focus attention on the one element of Body Worlds that is omnipresent yet mentioned nowhere in the captions: the spirit, the soul, the delicate, persistent force that animates every human yet is never more apparent than in its absence. “I want to narrow the gap between death and the living,” von Hagens says. In a manner that no words or pictures but only a firsthand encounter can convey, he does.

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