Body Worlds — Opens Friday in Edmonton

Man with Skin

BODY WORLDS features authentic human specimens preserved through a revolutionary process called Plastination. This remarkable preservation technique replaces bodily fluids and fat with reactive plastics, thereby preserving human tissue in its natural state. Visitors who embark on this amazing journey below the skin’s surface will view an extensive collection including more than 200 authentic organs, systems and whole-body displays.

Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS exhibitions are the only anatomical exhibits that use donated bodies, willed by donors for the express purpose of serving BODY WORLDS mission to educate the public about health and anatomy. To date, more than 8,000 people have agreed to donate their bodies to BODY WORLDS for Plastination and use in the exhibits. [Source]

The organizers claim that the primary mission of all the BODY WORLDS exhibitions (there are now four, the one opening in Edmonton is the original, with some additions, and was first shown in Tokyo in 1995) is health education. By showing visitors what lies beneath the skin they hope that an understanding and respect for the intricate mechanics involved in the human body will be developed. Further to the goal of health education, the exhibitions juxtapose healthy and unhealthy bodies and organs side by side, most notably plasticized lungs from a smoker and body sections from a clinically obese person.

Additionally, the organizers want to make a comment about just how special every person is:

Every human being is unique. Humans reveal their individuality not only through the visible exterior, but also through the interior of their bodies, as each body is distinctly different from any other. Position, size, shape, and structure of skeleton, muscles, nerves, and organs determine our “interior face.” [Source]

These two messages do not fit cleanly together though–it can be a difficult thing to respect a person, including oneself, as an individual when that person has also been labeled as “unhealthy”. As much as any fashion magazine or runway model this exhibition makes an implicit statement about what is “healthy” and in doing so makes an implicit claim about sorts of people we should be. Whether the show is ultimately beneficial or detrimental to the goals of respect for individuals and building inclusive communities remains to be seen.

Still, I’m looking forward to the show (tickets) and will report on my experience after I attend.

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2 thoughts on “Body Worlds — Opens Friday in Edmonton

  1. I still can’t get over the fact that this exhibit is controversial. I heard a segment on CBC radio this past Wednesday morning where several individuals were interviewed about whether or not they would be interested in seeing Body Worlds. One woman answered that she heard that it showed the heart, liver, and other internal organs, which was “disgusting” and something that children should not be exposed to.

    I have seen Body Worlds 2 in Toronto as well as Bodies … The Exhibition, which is virtually identical to the Body Worlds series, in Buenos Aires. I understand that there has been some controversy over where the bodies on display in the Body Worlds exhibits have come from. I have read (but have not researched to verify) that the creator of Body Worlds successfully sued the German newspaper Der Spiegel for claiming that the bodies on display were obtained from Chinese prisons when they were, in fact, all privately donated. I have learned, however, that Bodies … The Exhibition uses plasticized cadavers leased by a US company (Premier Exhibitions) from a Chinese University. The Bodies website now includes the following disclaimer: “This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”

    The ethical issues regarding where the specimens came from aside, and to return to basis of the real controversy, it is the display of human remains. It shocks me that there is still a large number of interest groups who are fundamentally opposed to understanding the biological world. Having seen both exhibits, I can say that there is nothing in either show that speaks to religion or evolution, just to the complexity of the body. So, I don’t see the source of the controversy. Some may take issue with the fact that these exhibits seem to be as much artistic displays as they are scientific, but I feel that the displays are all done tastefully and their creating must involve an incredible amount of skill and patience.

    It is quite encouraging, however, to see the great numbers of people who have been turning out to these exhibits. I simply cannot comprehend how anyone could have little or no interest in understanding how the body does (or does not) work. Rarely does the average person have an opportunity to see what lies beneath their skin. I think perhaps the greatest problem is the fact that at least in North America, there seems to be such a denial of the fact that death is part of life. Even myself, who is a physical anthropologist by training, who has studied human anatomy and worked with thousands of human skeletons, have seen very few dead bodies. Of course, individuals coming from various other regions of the world have seen atrocities that I can’t even imagine, but here in North America, death seems like such an uncommon occurrence. To think of putting it on display rather that hiding it away is obviously very troublesome for many. But what those people need to understand is that it is not death on display, and not even humanity, but a complex system of bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments, nerves, various organs and appendages, all configured in ways that are still quite mysterious to all of us. I can honestly say that I did not see a single person at either exhibition who looked frightened or disturbed. All I saw was excitement, enthusiasm, and wonder.

  2. Pingback: Body Worlds — A Visitor’s Tale « What Sorts of People

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