Body Worlds: Review

I went to see Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 1 at our local Science Centre today. I'm interested in medical history, the history of science, and representations of the body, so I thought it was something I should check out. Given our discussions about popular exhibitions below, I thought I'd share my impressions.

The exhibit entry was timed for every 15 minutes, and certainly seemed to be full to capacity; it was, however, midday on a Saturday close to the final days of the show, so it may not be reflective of the visitor numbers over the entire run of the exhibition. The show was spread out over the entire top floor of the Centre, and there was an IMAX movie option, as well as optional audio guides, neither of which I was willing to pay extra for. (The show itself was over $25 for student admission, and I overheard one mother explaining to her son why they couldn't buy anything at the gift shop: she had already spent over $70 just getting them through the doors! One certainly had to be someone who really valued the educational potential of the show, with money to spare, to take one's kids through.) The public was varied: from parents with infants, school-aged children, high-school students, university students, middle-aged people, and even seniors. There was good variety of people, slightly skewed toward the 15-25 age range, mostly white and middle-class. 

The actual exhibit had preserved cross-sections and preserved individual organs or systems in plexiglass cases with detailed explanations of each, backlit columns with overall thematic information on the systems of the body, large illustrated panels discussing the culture of death over time, and featuring quotations and illustrations from famous artists and thinkers, as well as the famous plastinated bodies, each dissected to show various aspects of the body, and posed in various ways. A video about half-way through explained the plastination process, and scattered throughout were stations where docents did illustrations and talks about different systems of the body.

The show started out scientifically enough. We were greeted by a discussion of the human skeletal structure, which included cross-sections of the human ear (containing the smallest bone in the body), hands, feet, skulls, and examples of surgical intervention for broken bones. Then there were examples of the neural system, with slices of the brain, and a discussion of the muscle systems in the body, like the arm.

After that fairly innocuous start, however, the show got progressively weirder. The plastinated bodies were then posed to illustrate conceptual ideas, like the famous "Chess Player," and "Basketball Player." The label text from the former contained the sentence: "The pose emphasizes the special character of this plastinate, its anatomical identity." In the second half, we were treated to a man on a horse, with parts of both animals flying out behind them. The final plastinate was entitled "Phoenix with Birds," a Damien-Hirst-style title, if ever I saw one, which was a dissected woman on her knees, releasing two ducks (consisting of their vascular structures alone) into the air. The label text, as I have alluded, was also strange. One plastinate (below) read: "His unusually strongly developed muscles pre-destined the Ring Gymnast for this pose." Oh, really? Doubtless, he was indeed born to be Dr von Hagen's plastic marionette puppet. NOT!

Indeed, the tone of the text in the show, where it wasn't strictly clinical, was overtly moralizing: "Not too long ago, our dealings with death were much more natural and free than they are today," read one panel. And the general sense was that the historical background on the cultural construction of attitudes toward death was not an intellectual project, but instead, a means by which to relate Body Worlds to the Renaissance works of people like Leonardo da Vinci and Vesalius. While the rhetoric of the show began by being scientific, it was clear that von Hagens sees himself more as a skilled artist-philosopher. I want to quote the concluding text of the show to illustrate what I mean:
The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to Body Worlds of the intangible and unfathomable. The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence. Plastination transforms the body, an object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment, and appreciation. I hope for Body Worlds to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer. - Gunther von Hagens.
So what did I think? How did I interpret it? I found most of the specimens interesting - it was fascinating to see certain body parts in ways and relationships that I had not seen before. It was fascinating how simultaneously adaptive and complex but small and fragile human beings really are. But I found it contradictory and sometimes disturbing. There was a strong emphasis on quitting smoking, for example, with a booth where you could pledge to quit after seeing the tarred lungs of smokers and metastasized cancers riddling organs in almost every case. On one hand, this is praiseworthy - on the other, it's too much. 

I was frankly offended by the "development of the body" section, which showed the development of the fetus. I am rather on the liberal side of the spectrum when it comes to women's health, but it was disturbing to see fetuses in jars for every week of development, canned like pickled vegetables, when they could have been someone's baby. There was also a plastinated pregnant woman, posed in what I felt to be an inappropriate manner; I felt sad that this woman died before having the chance to give birth, and now she and her baby were stuck in this strange limbo, being ogled by people all over the world. It probably says a lot about me that I feel pregnancy is too intimate to be exhibited, but I am often confronted by my strange Puritanical ideas in practice. 
Another too-intimate thing that I found disturbing was that there wasn't always an evident reason for the ways in which bodies were dissected (male genitalia was often kept in place, nipples were kept, eyebrows and eyelashes in some cases), and that hair (which is so very personal and such a marker of individual identity) could often be seen. In the Ring Gymnast, above, he has a strange mohawk hairdo; the plastination of the female in the show kept her pubic area, hair and all, intact. 

Finally, I felt that the props added to the specimens (the rings for the gymnast, the balls for the football players and the basketball player, the hat for the winged man - "a white hat adds to the ecceptric posture and further narrows the gap between life and death" - and the gilding applied to "The Inner Face") were too much like treating the bodies of real people (anonymized as they were) like puppets. We can argue about whether this is disrespectful, but it is certainly jarring to be told that something is clinical and professional when you can see before you clear evidence of the individual lives these people led, written on their bodies (3D man had a tattoo!), or given to them after death by someone else.

As one of the quotes in the show said, "Our skin is the travelling bag of our existence." (Robert Musli, Austrian, 1880-1942) It's one thing to show travelling bags; quite another to show skin.


Michal Meyer said…
I recently started putting together a syllabus on the body from a history of science and technology perspective. I wanted to use this kind of exhibition as a talking point. For me it raises questions about information versus knowledge, the right to information, and the status of the body. Also the very fuzzy boundary between education and entertainment and the possibly different rules that apply to displaying the body in the two categories. I find myself ambivalent about such an exhibition, but find it hard to pin down specific reasons (beyond a visceral reaction).
J said…
Yes, I think you've pinpointed some of the debates that I was expecting to see in the didactic information in the show; yet it seemed as though GvH had already decided what his position was, and used the exhibition as his answer. Intellectually curious types like us must be disappointed. His interpretation of events like anatomical theatres and public dissections would be interesting for your syllabus, I think - the ways in which he understands these historical events through his own contemporary work is fascinating(ly disturbing).
Randi Large said…
Although I understand your point of view, I do not agree with you blog at all. I am a 18 year old first year med student and yesterday was my third time to see Body Worlds, this time the story of the heart. I think you are looking past the fact that these people gave you a wonderful gift and donated their bodies, long before they were gone. They donated their bodies in order for us to learn and give us the opportunity to see something amazing in an educational enviornment. Although I do feel for you on your opinions on the fetuses, I am very pro-choice and I think that it is not fair to judge these women who have made a sacrafice themselves. You never wondered if maybe these pregnancies failed because they were sick or worse. As for the use of "props", I think it contributes to the people themselves and the lives they led before they passed. I dont believe this exhibit is for the weak hearted or minded, and those who are not open to learn and accept other peoples decisions. I feel its disrespectful towards the human beings who gave their bodies as a gift, to down talk the very thing they believed in. I too have decided to donate my body, I want to give the gift of learning and fascination to others who share my passion.As for " the pubic hair and nipples " its part of life, everyone sees it, everyday. Its part of the human body. Dont go to an exhibit called body worlds if you dont want to see actual human bodies in various shapes, sizes, and ages. I ask that before you judge again, you should step outside the box and see how many people are effected by this. It is, afterall the reason I decided to Major in Nuero Development. I saw my first exhibit at 13 and Ive been drawn to the body and medical science ever since. This is an amazing GIFT, and I hope that you will no longer continue to view it as offensive, and always remember you have the CHOICE to see it, as did the women and men who agve their bodies, they chose too. Please Respect their decisions, and I hope you come to learn more about this contributation and appriciate it.
Rolando said…
I read your post after visiting B.W in Rome.
As a blogger I did believe this event quite curious for my reader but after several considerations you don't mention probably I will avoid to publicate my post.In fact after my researches it seems that many of the bodies plastinated and exibited with the main goal to make money never signed to offer no one piece of skin probably coming from countries like China on Kirgistan where G.Von Hagens opened new laboratories.
In France is forbidden by the law to exibit uman bodies and obtaining money in that way.
Furtherly I remained really attonished finding on you tube a priest very enthusiastic of that shocking art and suggesting the visit to young people not able to perceive what is criptated in the bodies exposed.
Mark said…
I thank you for your thoughtful blog entry on the subject. Yesterday I, for the first time, went through the “Body Worlds- Vital” exhibit here in Louisville, Kentucky (my first trip, but the second for my wife and 8-year-old daughter.) I don’t doubt the educational value of the subject matter, and my daughter found it fascinating and was eager for me to see it. For that reason alone—the stimulation of scientific curiosity about the human body—I find the show worthwhile, but seeing it for myself did nothing to rid me of my qualms about it. Nor have reading news story and criticisms on-line. It is interesting and informative, yes, but I also find it tacky and somehow troubling. I pride myself in being a skeptic, in prizing rationalism above emotion, but I do acknowledge that emotion is an important part of being a human; and there is something about this, on an emotional level, hard for me to parse out in reasonable argument, that I find disconcerting.

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