Body Worlds — A Visitor’s Tale

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I enjoyed my visit to Body Worlds 1 at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton thoroughly.  The whole experience was exciting and interesting.  A comment made by my girlfriend when we talked about the exhibit a few hours later over dinner captured an experience that I think many people will share–”I went in looking forward to being at least a little offended, but I spent the whole time being amazed!”  It was only a day or so later that a point of contention even crept into my mind.

Our visit started with a trip to the IMAX show “The Human Body“.  This 43 minute film takes you on a visual journey through the bodies of a family as they move about their day.  Impressive computer animation and visual effects including infrared cameras, time-lapsed photography, and fibre optic cameras made this film a winner.

After the show we were ushered into a holding area to wait for our entrance time into the Body Worlds exhibit.  Since the IMAX film started at 2pm and our tickets for BWs were for 3:30pm this meant that we had 45 minutes to burn.  This would have been annoying (I bought the tickets for both shows as a pacakge deal and so a 3pm start time would have seemed the sensible thing) except that the holding area gave us access to four exploration areas.  We passed the time watching a theatre show demonstrating fun things you can do with liquid nitrogen.

Entering the exhibit you will be greeted by a series of bone and joint displays inside glass cases.  These quickly progress into bone and joint displays with plasticized muscles and ligaments attached and before you know it the first full plastinate is standing in front of you, The Smoker (A plasticized male with skin removed holding a cigarette.  The muscles and tissue covering the ribs on the left side of his body have been removed so that you can see the dark grey lung).  Accompanying the displays in this room are a series of wall hangings intended to inform you about the death related practices of various cultures around the world over the course of human existed.  The implicit argument being made: your various hang-ups concerning death are entirely cultural, get over them.

After this first hall there are plasticized people everywhere.  Some standing, some active, and all of them fully viewable from all sides (Many of the cases are close to walls or corners, but there is enough space and light from all sides to make walking around back of each person on display worthwhile, some even have special cut-away portions that you would otherwise miss).  The most impressive for me were the Horse and Rider (The angle at which the promo photos of this display are taken do not do it justice) and the Reclining Pregnant Woman (wow), but everything was well done.

The healthy vs. unhealthy angle wasn’t as overt as I expected it to be.  People with various afflictions and maladies were presented in as matter-of-fact a way as is likely possible: The Smoker just stood alone, slightly off-set from the rest of the displays; a spine from a person suffering severe spinal deformation was just a spine in a glass case; the cross section of an obese person was simply set beside what was supposedly a cross-section from a thin person (I had trouble telling seeing the difference) and that was about it.  Without skin there seemed to be no issues of race present whatsoever.

My only complaint (other than the video explaining the body preparation process had no sound and nobody could seem to fix it) was that the whole display heavily underscored standard gender stereotypes.  Active poses were male (Riding a horse, jumping, running, walking, etc.) and passive poses were typically female (reclining, standing).  The one possible exception to this was a plasticized woman who was kneeling while releasing two doves into the air (actually the capillary systems of two doves) close to the exit, but this hardly counts for reasons I take to be obvious.  The gender issue has been partially corrected in other versions of the the exhibit (Body Worlds 3, for example, includes, The Archer) and may originally have been the result of simply a lack of female donors.  However, if these exhibits have sparked as much willingness to donate as you will be led to believe should you choose to attend the event then there can be no excuse for perpetuating the passive-female stereotype.

Overall it is an excellent and thought provoking exhibit.  I highly recommend attending.

PS – If you go, make sure you get the audio tour.  It’s an extra $5-6 but I found it well worth the expense as the little cards beside each display have barely any information on them at all and many of the staff are volunteers who know only a little about the exhibit.

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3 thoughts on “Body Worlds — A Visitor’s Tale

  1. It doesn’t get more passive than that, does it? Reclining, naked, pregnant, dead, and plasticized! All in the name of science :) gotta love it.

  2. I too was struck by the appalling gender politics of the exhibit, along the lines suggested by the post. Did you also notice that there were lots of, well, penises and testicles (including separated from the body) while the women were represented “down there” only via their reproductive organs (dissected and exposed wombs and ovaries, but no attempt to show a dissected or even really visible vulva, including clitoris).

    I think the problem extends to the hyperbolic and even megalomaniacal representation of GUNTHER VON HAGENS INVENTOR OF PLASTINATION!! He seems to have a penchant for being the Mad Scientist and Philosopher, cast in a masculinist mould (sic). All the quotes from (male) philosophers and anatomists around the walls I thought were rather an incoherent pastiche, and reflected a desperate desire to justify the whole project as Clever and Scholarly rather than Ghoulish and Money-Making. So there are gender texts and also gender subtexts at work here, IMO.

  3. Pingback: Body Worlds — Opens Friday in Edmonton « What Sorts of People

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