Upon entry to the Body Worlds exhibition in its new home in London, the dark lighting and vast ceiling only heighten the sense of anticipation at what lies ahead. A short video at the beginning of the exhibition highlights the stresses and strains of a modern-day life and the pressures it puts on our mind and body, and quickly establishes that the exhibition is designed to be an educational, thought-provoking experience. Around the corner, and setting the scene of the true attraction of Body Worlds, the first plastinated body is seated, posing nonchalantly. The skin on the model has been stripped away to reveal the muscles and tendons which stretch over every bone. The information card told me that this was the body from a public dissection performed by Von Hagens in 2002, the first in the UK for 170 years.
I have followed the work of the Gunther von Hagens’, German anatomist and the creator of plastination, for a number of years online and his work was every bit as spectacular as I had hoped when I finally got to see it. His first public dissection in Britain was highly controversial at the time and Von Hagen’s work continues to be just as provocative and contentious today. Over 1,000 people were on the waiting list to view the autopsy in 2002, and, despite being issued with a warning under the 1984 Anatomy Act, Von Hagens boldly declared that he would rather be imprisoned than cancel the display. During the dissection, Von Hagens announced to his audience that he had ‘liberated’ the lungs and heart. This idea of liberating organs is echoed in Von Hagens’ compelling Body Worlds exhibitions where bodies donated to be plastinated are modelled to show the innermost intricacies of human anatomy. These plastinated bodies have been displayed in Britain, America, Germany and the Netherlands, with other touring exhibitions around the globe. In October, Body Worlds found a permanent home in Piccadilly Circus where I was finally able to experience the display for myself.
The plastination process is a laborious one, and it can take up to a year for just one cadaver to go through the many stages. First it is injected with formaldehyde to preserve tissue, then dehydrated in acetone before being submerged in a liquid polymer bath where a vacuum is created to allow the polymer to permeate every cell. The body is then dissected and positioned as desired before the final curing process. After being permanently hardened, the specimen is then ready to be displayed. The plastinates, stripped of their skin and visceral and subcutaneous fat layers, do not reveal anything about the age, weight, or ethnicity of the donor. Only very keen observers or visitors with a background in medicine or forensic science would be able to make rough estimations of these features by analysing the structure of the plastinate’s bones or cranium. Even so, I was struck by how expressive the plastinates could be due to the manipulation of facial muscles, lips and tongue.
The history of anatomy on display extends far beyond Von Hagens, and has always blurred the lines between education and entertainment, the prudish and the perverse. In England, the nineteenth-century public had a complicated relationship with their bodies which was expressed in their disgust and fascination towards anatomy museums. These macabre institutions had been around since the eighteenth-century but were reserved for training medical professionals and were not open to the public. The notorious Burke and Hare bodysnatching scandal in 1828 and the Anatomy Act of 1832 brought the public’s attention to the world of anatomy and triggered people’s desire for a deeper understanding of their own bodies. The self-appointed ‘Doctor’ Joseph Kahn was the Gunther von Hagens of his day; an Alsatian-born, German-educated showman showman touring with collections of anatomy, and embryological and surgical samples. Kahn established his famous anatomy museum in London in 1851 and opened it up to the paying public, including women. Alongside the exhibits, there were lectures on healthy living and displays of venereal diseases, which provided a lower-class population with examples of ‘healthy living’ as well as the opportunity for a method of self-diagnosis.
In many ways, Body Worlds is no different to this museum. Like Kahn’s museum, it uses the body to educate. Every section of the exhibition is about a different part of the body, with examples of healthy and unhealthy organs in striking side by side comparisons. This method of education seems to be effective to public health given Body Worlds’ claim that 68% of the people leave wishing to pursue a healthier lifestyle. There are also interactive stations where visitors can take their blood pressure, measure their stress levels with a handheld biometric ball and learn how to perform CPR on dummies next to a display of two plastinates engaging in the same exercise. A blackboard and pens are provided near the end for visitors to record what they hope to achieve before they die, which seems fitting given the omnipresence of death in the exhibition. There is something deeply chilling about coming face to face with your own mortality, yet these reminders of death serve to encourage visitors to learn about and examine their own lifestyles and bodies. A section about the brain and hormones taught me that only 10% of what affects our happiness is circumstantial – the rest is genetic and depends on our conscious outlook. Another section teaches about behavioural patterns and how we can rewire our own choices and thought processes. There was a certain comfort in these sections that came from the feeling of having the control of your body and emotions being handed back to you through education.
It’s hard to remember that these figures are real human cadavers, as plastination gives the muscles a dull artificial sheen and renders them odourless. The eyes of the plastinates are the only artificial part of the exhibits due to the high water content which makes eyes difficult to preserve. There’s something unsettling about staring into vacant glassy orbs framed by real eyelashes and I almost expected them to blink or to follow me around the room. Another body has been plastinated and sliced into 5-8mm thick sheets. Five full cross-sections of the cadaver hang in a row, suspended by wire like a shower curtain and spectators can see everything from head to toe in a progression of visibility as each sheet shows a deeper cross-section of the anatomy. Whilst some of the plastinates are in glass cases, others are in open view with signs instructing visitors not to touch them, but I wasn’t the only one who felt the need to be as close as I could without coming into contact. And yet some displays are hard to look at, and one section shows the progression of a foetus from the fifth week of development all the way to a new born baby. Personally, I thought the most moving piece was a standing woman with her stomach and uterine wall opened to show a foetus of five months gestation. Her lips are turned slightly upwards in a dreamlike smile and her hands cradle her stomach. In the reflection of the glass casing I found myself lightly touching my own belly in a subconscious display of feminine solidarity. Whilst it was easy to forget that the plastinates had been living people, certain examples were stark reminders of their previous lives.
There is also a warning sign for the reproductive room which shows a couple engaged in sexual intercourse and is perhaps the result of the substantial backlash to this display at a Berlin exhibition in 2015. But it wasn’t just Germany that had responded to Von Hagens’ work with outcry. The introduction of the exhibition in England brought a sense of public unease, and some commentators were doubtful about what could be learnt from an exhibition that seemed nothing more than a freak show for the macabre. Joseph Kahn’s nineteenth-century exhibitions, in contrast, were initially met with positive responses. Upon encountering money troubles, however, Kahn began selling ‘quack’ remedies for venereal diseases. This turned his previous advocates into adversaries who declared that Kahn was corrupting the minds of the public and encouraging sexual immorality. The lack of bodies for scientific research in nineteenth-century Britain has arguably had a lasting effect through to present day about attitudes towards anatomy. Whilst the public expressed displeasure at both Von Hagens’ and Kahn’s museums for different reasons, there remains a deeply rooted anxiety regarding our own anatomy that has transcended through the centuries.
Indeed, as I walked around the exhibition, I was fascinated not only by the plastinates but also by the responses from other visitors. The attending public ranged from primary school children to the elderly and Body Worlds advertises itself as encouragingly inclusive. The younger students and teenagers showed a detached, clinical interest, without any disrespectful jokes or laughter. There was mostly an absorbing silence throughout as people immersed themselves in their audio guides and the exhibits, and the ban on photography meant that everyone was present in the moment without viewing it though a camera lens.
When Dr Kahn’s museum was closed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and most of his specimens were destroyed at his trial, something of a turning point was established in the public’s perception of the body on display. The medical profession decided to once again monopolize their knowledge and argued that these public and commercial exhibitions encouraged loose sexual morals. Dissection returned to being an activity carried out behind closed doors for the eyes of doctors and paying elites only. With his 2002 dissection, Von Hagens marks the cyclic pattern of restoring the display of human anatomy to the public eye, allowing us an intimate portrait of our own bodies and visually educating ordinary people about their own health. Controversies aside, I think that Body Worlds is a brilliant way to encourage every generation to see past the old taboo of death and open up discussions of health and lifestyle.
Darcy Rae is an MA by Research student at Royal Holloway, University of London.