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Up close and personal at "Bodies: The Exhibition"

Written by Lakshini Mendis |

Bodies: The Exhibition and Body Worlds offer an intimate look at human anatomy

I flew off on my first solo trip (a month-long North American odyssey!) soon after handing in my Masters thesis (literally less than 3 hours later).

My travels included a 2-week stay in New York City. The Big Apple definitely lived up to the hype! I ticked off the big-ticket items, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and Central Park. I even gazed up at the building that was used as the exterior of Friends, had a breakfast bagel in front of Tiffany’s, and discovered my favorite musical, Wicked, on Broadway. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to stumble on Bodies: The Exhibition, at the South Street Seaport, after a visit to the Brooklyn bridge.

Naturally, as student of anatomy and a lover of all things science, I was intrigued.

Walking through the entrance, I was greeted by the following quote:

“LIFE UNCOVERED: [lyhyf · uhn-kuhv-erd].
1. A journey of self discovery, whereby you gaze and marvel at real human bodies to discover who you truly are on the inside.
(see BODIES… THE EXHIBITION, an unparalled experience)”

The exhibition, which first opened in Tampa, Florida, in 2005, showcases full-bodied cadavers and organs, providing a detailed, three-dimensional view of the human body, which you can otherwise only witness in an anatomy lab. The exhibition took me on a journey, which started from the skeletal system through to more layers, including the muscular, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, urinary, and reproductive systems.

The exhibition is operated by Premier Exhibitions, which were loaned the cadavers from the Chinese government, who donated them because at the time of death there were no close next of kind or immediate family to claim the bodies. The dissections took place at the Dalian University in Liaoning, China.

The bodies are preserved using a plastination technique developed by anatomist Gunther von Hagens in the 1970s. To prevent the body from decay, water and fatty material in the body are gradually replaced, first with acetone, followed by a polymer, such as silicone rubber, polyester, or epoxy resin, in a year-long process. Von Hagens has developed more than 20 polymer compounds.

This video outlines the plastination technique, but please be warned that it is not for the squeamish:

Von Hagen’s exhibition Body Worlds (which is not affiliated with Bodies: The Exhibition) opened in 1995. Von Hagen explicitly states all human specimens were obtained with full knowledge and consent of the donors before they died.

I cannot write about Bodies and Body Worlds without mentioning the ethical and religious objections that have been raised. You can read more about the controversy here and here. Raffaella Bianucci and colleagues also voiced their concern about the educative value of Body Worlds for younger viewers.

Although, personally, I avoided the foetal development room, overall, I found Bodies: The Exhibition deeply moving. Although admittedly it was not crowded when I visited, the hushed tones of visitors in each gallery lent the air of reverence and respect that this exhibition deserves. The specimen that struck me the most was the one showing the vasculature alone, where each blood vessel, down to the capillaries, could be viewed in immense detail.

In terms of public health, Dr. Angelina Whalley, the creative and conceptual designer of Body Worlds, also highlights how the “arresting sight of the blackened lung of a cigarette smoker next to a healthy lung has prompted countless visitors to swear off smoking, while the diseased shrunken liver next to its healthy counterpart has prompted many to surrender alcohol.”

Finally, Randi Weingarten, the President of the United Federation of Teachers outlined how the sense of wonder and awe this exhibition inspires is essential to sparking learning.

So far, Bodies: The Exhibition has appeared in 83 locations worldwide, with current exhibits in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Hagen’s Body Worlds has permanent exhibitions in San José, Berlin, Guben, Amsterdam, and Heidelberg, with upcoming exhibits in Auckland (from the 23rd of April), and Osnabrück, and Halifax. The plastination laboratory in Guben, Germany also allows visitors a chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at how a plastinate is made.

Readers, would you attend any of these exhibitions? Share your thoughts in our comments section below.

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