Imagine that you’re viewing a piece of sculpture in a museum. The object of your consideration is a beautifully articulated ballet dancer, her back arched gracefully in a curve, her arms and extended leg balancing her weight effortlessly, the ripple of every muscle visible to the beholder as she executes her endless pose.
Now imagine that instead of a Degas cast in bronze, the object of your study is a well-preserved, partially dissected human body, with most of its musculature and many of its internal organs made visible, skin peeled away to display that structure in all of its detail, the inner workings of the human skeletal system subject to your perusal, the complex interplay of bone and muscle, tendon and nerve, blood vessels and heart literally laid bare.
Such is the dual nature of Body Worlds 2, one of three concurrently traveling exhibits that are an outgrowth of the life’s work of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a 60-year-old German scientist who claims to want to demystify the human body for a lay audience. An anatomist by training and profession, von Hagens invented the process by which the specimens in this exhibit are preserved. Called plastination, it involves removing all of the water and fat in a physical specimen and replacing it with reactive polymers, which are later cured through exposure to light, heat, or gas, depending on the polymer used and the intended use of the specimen.
The end result is a durable physical specimen capable of being manipulated to expose the functional relationships between parts to their best advantage. Because the curing process hardens the tissues (unlike the methods used in more traditional forms of specimen preparation), whole bodies can be positioned in specific poses. The lifelike quality of the plastinates, as these preparations are called, renders them valuable as teaching aids, and the process is now widely used as a method of preparing specimens for anatomical studies (according to information available at the exhibit, the process even allows for the histological examination of tissue specimens).
The Body Worlds exhibits, which have been touring the world since 1996, have drawn their share of controversy, and von Hagens is not above using controversial or negative publicity to his advantage. Part science, part art, and part carnival sideshow, the specimens of Body Worlds are more attractively prepared and artfully presented than those many of us have seen in jars of formaldehyde, but indeed hold the same morbid fascination.
The exhibit begins simply enough, with a case of specimens, mostly from the skeletal system. So far, nothing too unusual for a veteran museum visitor. The Body Worlds website states that the primary mission of the exhibits is health education, and indeed, there are specimens here that provide graphic evidence of the end result of abuse. The section on the respiratory system contains three lung specimens – a healthy, unblemished lung, the blackened lung of a smoker, and the nearly unrecognizable lung of a coal miner. The cross sections of brain tissue damaged by stroke, and cardiac muscle damaged by infarct serve to remind us of our vulnerability, and perhaps make us aware of the lifestyle habits that can contribute to such effects.
While the isolated body parts that show the articulation of a knee joint or the almost unimaginable complexity of the circulatory system are both educational and awe-inspiring, it is the so-called whole body plastinates – bodies dissected and displayed in their entirety – that pack the real wallop here. Displayed in a variety of dynamic poses, without skin (and with eyeballs and genitalia intact), the bodies are presented in various states of dissection – the muscles are often partially removed or dissected and splayed open, giving the viewer an inside look at biomechanical processes as well as providing us with a better understanding of what goes where. In some cases, limbs and torsos are sectioned so that we can peer inside. Because the specimens are displayed on stands, they are accessible in their entirety – one can walk all the way around and not miss a thing. They are powerful, beautiful — and more than a little creepy. It is nearly impossible to look away.
Nearly all of the whole bodies are posed in a fanciful – one might say artistic – form. Some of the pieces border on the whimsical – one intuits that the creator has a sense of humor. Is this intended to disarm us? A woman posed as a diver is bisected width-wise along the length of her torso. As the front half of her head and torso are poised to dive, her back half extends in the opposite direction. In between, we get to see the placement of her internal organs, including her brain. A specimen titled “Angel” possesses “wings” comprised of her dissected back musculature, splayed open and upward. In another display, a man kicks a soccer ball.
Image courtesy of Body Worlds
If the educational value of these preparations is obvious, the voyeuristic aspect is hard to deny. Although Body Worlds takes great care to protect the anonymity of the body donors (no personal information is given, and we are asked not to dwell on their personal stories but on the opportunity for study that they are offering us), it is difficult, if not impossible, to gaze at the remains of a once-living being, artfully arranged as if the subject were frozen in mid-breath, and not wonder. And indeed I would suggest that it is this impossibility which gives the exhibit much of its emotional power.
Nowhere is that urge to wonder more palpable than in the exhibit on reproduction. Curtained off from the rest of the exhibit so that viewers who are sensitive to such things can choose not to see the specimens contained therein, this display includes embryos in every stage of development, from one week through nearly full term. But it’s the whole body specimen here – a woman with a dissected uterus, revealing a five-month fetus curled inside – that gave me pause and made me feel a little sad. There was nothing whimsical to be found behind these curtains, just perhaps a reminder that we are indeed doomed to die from the moment we come into being, some of us sooner than others.
All in all, the impact of the exhibit lies in its contradictions. Are we viewing a clinical dissection or a work of art? Are our dead bodies objects of reverence, or are we simply hunks of meat once we’ve drawn our last breath? Is it wrong to be so fascinated by these specimens? Are we disrespecting the dead, or honoring them? If these questions fascinate you, Body Worlds 2 is a good place at which to begin thinking about the answers.
The final whole-body plastinate in this exhibit happened to be my favorite, both for the grace and elegance of the pose and the sly suggestion of dark humor it put forth. It depicts two subjects, male and female, executing a move familiar to anyone who has ever watched pairs figure skating. The male is the pivot, the toe of one skate firmly planted in the ice, his powerful thigh muscles supporting his body in a squat. With one arm elegantly poised above his head for balance, his free hand grasps the outstretched hand of his partner, whose head is bent back in a lovely arc, her body stretched to its full length and nearly parallel with the ground. They are frozen in this moment of grace for eternity.
As any skating aficionado knows, it’s the death spiral.
Body Worlds 2: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies is at the Museum of Science, Science Park, Boston, Massachusetts through January 7, 2007. Information about other exhibits present and future can be found at the Body Worlds website.