It Gets Under My Skin

[12 October 2005]

By Marco Lanzagorta

It is commonly accepted by the neuroscience community that human consciousness is what makes us different from the rest of the animal world. Specifically, we appear to be the only living creatures that are self-aware of our own inevitable deaths. And we are so afraid of it. Since ancient times, regardless of the cultural and social climate, humankind has been preoccupied and even terrified about such matters surrounding death: bodily disintegration, premature burial, posthumous indignities, or of merely being forgotten after death. While nearly all religious ceremonies and beliefs delve into the promise of a glamorous afterlife, most science museums, showcasing fossils, stuffed animals, and organs in formaldehyde, directly confront the viewer with the idea of mortality as a natural and unavoidable biological process. At the same time, death, at least in the modern, Western world, is generally considered off limits for public discussion and analysis.

However, our taboos regarding death and cadavers are not perennial, but constantly transgressed and reshaped by popular media and culture. For instance, horror films and books often take advantage of our fears surrounding death. Ghosts, vampires, zombies and the Frankenstein creature are just a few of the transgressive monsters created by the human imagination that circumvent death, and suggest a hellish afterlife populated by unspeakable horrors for those who dare to contravene the natural order. Even so, it is not common for a scientific exhibit at the local museum to contravene death taboos while exploiting our forbidden fascination for the grotesque. But such is the case of Body Worlds.

Currently touring major US cities, Body Worlds is an anatomical exhibit that distinguishes itself from other medical displays by using more than 200 real human bodies prepared for exhibit in a plastinated state. These “anatomical specimens” are presented in rather unique positions (playing chess, swimming, or even riding a horse), with specific tissues pulled apart to display the internal organs. A dazzling exhibit by any means, Body Worlds succeeds in showcasing the complex and elegant structure of the human body in minute detail. As most of the specimens are not protected with glass or other barriers, one can literally stand inches away from a plastinated man exposing his brain or his heart for your close inspection.

Body Worlds is the brainchild of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who had his latest share of notoriety in 2002 due to the protests caused by his performance of the first public human dissection in England since 1830. Back in 1977, Dr. Gunther von Hagens developed the plastination process while working at the University of Heidelberg Institute of Anatomy in Germany. In a few words, plastination is a process that replaces all the fluids in the human body with reactive plastics such as silicone rubber, epoxy resin or polyester resin (remember that 70 percent of the human body is made of fluids). This exchange is carried out in a very specific way that does not distort the shape nor damage the integrity of the organs. A simple idea, but the exact procedure is rather long and complex, taking an average of 1,500 hours to complete the plastination of a single cadaver.

The end product of this plastination process is a dry and odorless anatomical specimen that preserves the shape and texture of body organs and tissues down to the microscopic level. As a result, these plastinated specimens have clear advantages over traditional anatomical study methods: they are much more detailed, realistic, and tangible than plastic mock-ups, images in a book, and computer generated models, and far less cumbersome to work with than dissected organs preserved in formaldehyde.

Because of these advantages, one can argue that plastination eases the research, professional education and public dissemination of information regarding human anatomy and physiology. This is especially true when one wants to understand the complex three-dimensional organization, relative proportions and relationships between the internal organs. For instance, the specimen of a pregnant woman offers an amazing view of the fetus inside the womb, while most book images present the fetus floating in black empty space. Truth be told, the small section of the exhibit dedicated to normal fetal development, which was separated from the other plastinates by a curtain, appeared to be the most emotionally laden of the entire display.

But perhaps the most impressive feature of the plastination method is that it can be targeted to specific organs and tissues, while removing all the surrounding tissues. This technique offers sights that no other method could duplicate, such as the specimens that showcase the vascular system. Imagine a human head where the only things you can see are the arteries and veins—no bones, skin, muscle, or brain tissue to obstruct the view. Without a doubt, this exhibit of the vascular system in a human head is one of the most beautiful specimens from Body Worlds, and makes evident how plastination can be used to showcase our inner beauty. After all, the gorgeousness of the human organs is something difficult to appreciate in their raw form. In this regard, Body Worlds resembles a twisted beauty contest once envisioned by acclaimed horror film director David Cronenberg. Talking in an interview about his fascination with human anatomy, Cronenberg imagined the participants opening up their rib cages to show their viscera to the judges.

While it employs an innovative technique, Body Worlds’ use of real human bodies for scientific research and medical education is not new. Such tradition dates back to the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century, and the dissections performed by Andreas Vesalius in 1543 that led the way to modern anatomy. Even though both of these pioneers found strong moral and religious opposition to their work, nowadays few people care about the ethics of recycling cadavers for scientific or medical purpose. Postmortem organ donations, for instance, are commonplace in most Western countries. Similarly, medical schools and biomedical research laboratories often use human bodies for experimental and teaching purposes. Perhaps society as a whole is able to see the merit, if not the irony, of using death to prolong life. However, this is true as long as these studies are conducted behind closed doors, accessed by qualified academics, physicians, and scientists, but strictly forbidden to anybody else. Thus, what makes Body Worlds different, and the main reason it has been surrounded in controversy since its very conception three decades ago, is that the specimens are posed in an obviously artistic way for public display.

The specimens in Body Worlds are not dissected cadavers lying on a slab, but similarly to Vesalius’s drawings, they are presented reading, fencing, or skiing in very dramatic poses in an aesthetically pleasurable way. One could argue that a plastinator is not that different from a sculptor, both attempting to create the illusion of life from an inanimate object and aiming at an emotional response from the viewer. Of course, as Dr. Gunther von Hagens cleverly states in the lavishly illustrated and informative book that accompanies Body Worlds, “No anatomical works of art have been created; they become works of art through the judgment of the visitors to exhibitions”.

In any event, one cannot deny that Body Worlds is a rather unique combination of art and science, with a generous dose of freak show. But in all honesty, beauty and usefulness are in the eyes of the beholder. From a scientific point of view, I was amazed at the physical and chemical aspects of the plastination method, I stood in awe at the sight of the human vascular system, I marveled at the connectivity of the muscular tissue, and I contemplated a prostate with foreboding fear. Artistically, I found much more pleasure looking at these plastinates than at the expressionistic paintings at the D’orsay museum in Paris. Even philosophically, the entire time I kept thinking about the cosmic evolution that, throughout thousands of millions of years, has transformed inorganic matter into such a marvelous biological machine. Most likely I did not learn much in terms of basic anatomy, given the ubiquitous information available to the layperson these days, but the exhibit certainly helped me better appreciate the complexity and beauty of the human body.

And perhaps I was not the only one with such thoughts. From what I was able to observe at the museum, most people appeared to be perplexed at the sophistication of the human body. It seems as if most of us take for granted the physiological dynamics of our bodies. Absurdly, most people appear to understand better the inner workings of their car engine or computers than their own bodies. And quite unfortunately, it is only when we experience disease that we come to realize how complex our organs really are. In this regard, the section of Body Worlds that displays side-by-side healthy and diseased organs was the most popular with the audience.

Nevertheless, most of the debates and controversies generated by Body Worlds question the posthumous dignity of the dead bodies used in the plastination process, especially if they risk being perceived as works of art. Ironically, most people appear to be completely oblivious to the fact that real human bones have already been used as part of an art display, in the mise-en-scene and special effects of popular horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Poltergeist II (Brian Gibson, 1986). And each of these films has an amusing behind-the-scenes story to tell.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, human and animal bones are part of the home decoration of the cannibalistic Sawyer family. According to director Tobe Hooper, his crew purchased a real human skeleton imported from India because it was cheaper than buying a plastic model in the US. And years later, during the making of Alien, the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger was brought over to work on the movie set when the production design team proved unable to construct a satisfactory 3D rendition of his paintings. As the legend goes, the extravagant Giger sent his crew on a shopping spree in every slaughterhouse and medical supply store in the region, acquiring thousands of human and animal bones, including a rhino skull. Giger ended up using most of the animal bones for the creation of the planet surface and the alien ship, and a human skull, which he distorted and modified with a saw and screws, for the monster’s head. And yes, Giger received an Oscar in special effects for his work in this film.

But even more hilarious, if one is inclined toward such humor, is when the actors in Poltergeist II discovered that the corpses in the set were made with real human skeletons. They threatened to stop the shooting and demanded the producers perform an exorcism. Such a ritual was carried out by no other than Native American actor Will Sampson [best known for his role as the mute chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 9Milos Forman, 1975)], who was a renowned shaman in real life.

In any event, it is important to remark that according to the companion book, all the dead bodies featured in Body Worlds were willingly donated for that specific purpose by their former owners, and they remain anonymous to the visitors of the exhibit. According to the testimonies found in the companion book, the motivations of the donors are varied, and range from gratitude to modern science: “Since I’ve been helped over and over again with blood transfusions, it’s important to me to help future generations by allowing research to be performed in my body”, to pure irony: “Maintaining a grave site is just one last way of pulling the wool over other people’s eyes”. Personally, I find the idea of being plastinated intriguing and even . . . seductive. The way I see it, being a part of Body Worlds offers one an opportunity to reach the type of immortality promised by Egyptian mummification, along with the prospect of traveling and visiting museums around the world . . .

Quite bizarrely if you think about it, at the end of the exhibit, people may sign up to request more information as to how donate their bodies to Body Worlds (talk about audience participation!). As a consequence, Body Worlds has also caused a considerable impact in the legal world, as it presents difficult questions regarding the legal status of a corpse. Some of the issues currently being address in the German legal system include the ownership, privacy, dignity and marketing rights of a cadaver. Adding to the complexity of the situation, some religious and moral groups have brought ethical issues to the discussion, and have tried to influence the legislature on all aspects surrounding Body Worlds. They argue that it is highly unethical and disrespectful to showcase real dead bodies for their popular and public consumption, even if they are voluntary donations, and advertised as part of a scientific display.

At this point, it may be worth mentioning one of the uncorroborated urban legends surrounding Body Worlds. According to some unofficial web sites of dubious reliability, some of the cadavers in the exhibit belonged to German prisoners and Chinese dissidents. More dramatically, there is word of one body that came with a bullet hole in the head. Neither the Body Worlds web site, nor the companion book, addresses these rumors, and they give the impression that all the bodies in the exhibit come from voluntary donations.

Still, these rumors talk about the very real situation that human bodies all over the world are currently being commercialized without the consent of their rightful owners. Let us remember that even here in the US, federal law dictates that unclaimed cadavers have to be sent to the State Anatomy Boards, where they are chemically prepared and sold to interested institutions for a small processing fee to cover all the costs involved. And in some third world countries such as Mexico, body snatchers are a pervasive problem at many cemeteries, prompting relatives to add thick brick walls surrounding the coffins of their deceased. Therefore, at the beginning of the 21st century, the sanctity of our earthly remains continues to be uncertain; whether to end up in a museum exhibit, a medical student’s dissection table, or even in the movie set of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Also, let us not forget that The Royal College of Surgeons of England Museum in London, the Federal Pathologic-Anatomic Museum in Vienna, and the Museum of Medical History in Berlin, are three out of the many public museums specialized in anatomy and physiology found across the globe. Their exhibits mostly rely on antique medical equipment, highly detailed anatomical wax figures, and real organs and fetuses in formaldehyde jars. However, quite often, these museums resemble freak shows in their showcase of abnormalities: stillborn children with body-distorting diseases such as anencephaly, trisomy 21, or multidactilia are very common to find in these exhibits. And a similar argument could be said about Body Worlds, which spares us from showing malformed fetuses, but nevertheless relies on exploiting our forbidden fascination for the morbid and the grotesque.

For an exhibit that deals with such a controversial subject matter, Body Worlds has been well attended by those interested in science, art, or the macabre. To date, this exhibit has attracted more than 15 million visitors in its tours throughout Europe, Asia and America. But then again, our conception and consumption of death, real or imaginary, is constantly changing through the influence of the media. As a consequence, several presentations and representations of death that were considered morbid a few years ago, today are regarded as mainstream.

Consider, for example, how we watch gruesome scenes featuring anatomically correct corpses in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation during prime time on national television. Had these very same scenes been in a horror movie 20 years ago, they would have been enough to motivate the Motion Picture Association of America to impose a severe X rating. By the same token, let us recall that James Whale’s Frankenstein was threatened with censorship upon its original release in 1931 because of its depiction of cadavers and body parts, while today it is considered a pretty “safe” film.

And thanks to the ever-present news media, even funerals are becoming worldwide spectacles instead of solemn rituals. While it is true that the funerals of the famous have often been open to the public, modern technology has made these ceremonies accessible to anybody, anywhere—and quite voyeuristically so. Think about the recent media coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II, which broadcasted live images of his dead body all over the world in surround sound, color corrected, widescreen, high definition TV.

All things considered, and in spite of the criticism Body Worlds has generated, it should not be unexpected that according to surveys performed and analyzed by the Polytechnic University of Kassel, most of its visitors come out of the experience with favorable opinions. For instance, less than one percent of the visitors were outraged at the entire exhibit, and only seven percent concluded that human dignity had been infringed. But as many as 60 percent found at least one specimen to be particularly beautiful (the most frequently mentioned specimens are those that showcase the vascular system). Also worth noticing is that 28 percent confessed to be infuriated at the public exhibition of plastinated fetuses. And quite amazingly, because of the displays that compare side-to-side healthy and diseased organs, 59 percent of the visitors promised to pay more attention to their health in the future.

For those who have the nerve to spend a day looking at dead bodies, Body Worlds is scheduled to be at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, from 7 October 2005 until 23 April 2006, and Body Worlds 2 is at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto, from 30 September 2005 until 26 February 2006. It may sound morbid, but it is impossible to deny that Body Worlds offers a unique perspective to fully appreciate the human body as the truly marvelous biological machine it is. And perhaps equally important, Body Worlds also makes us realize how the public conception, presentation, representation and consumption of death, real or imaginary, for entertainment or educational purposes, is rapidly changing thanks to modern science and technology.

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/051012-bodyworlds/