Possessing a natural curiosity regarding what lies beneath our bodies is one thing. Being so intrigued that you pioneer a patented cadaver preservation technique called plastination and take your literally stripped, sliced and diced specimens on the road in a global museum tour called Body Worlds? Some may think that it’s just a wee bit creepy, but German anatomist Gunther von Hagens has been doing precisely that for the past 15 years, much to the intrigue, shock and discomfort of more than 26 million fidgeting international visitors.
Like a messy traffic accident, it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off of his “whole body plastinates” because they offer a window inside the mortal form, fulfilling our innate desire to explore what is traditionally off-limits (particularly when we are not personally involved in the medical profession). With each new year, the founder of Heidelberg, Germany’s Institute of Plastination offers new bodies, themes and poses for his willing audiences to gaze at, and – along with his 11 competitors’ copycat exhibits – there seem to be more human anatomy exhibits than you can shake a stick at. Here are some of the most notable of the bunch – be prepared to get your squirm on!
Body Worlds – Displaying Permanently Plasticized Humans Since 1995
Creating a process in which human and animal tissue can be permanently preserved, all specimens in Gunther von Hagens’ displays undergo a four step process which yields a fully positional and manipulated final product. After embalming a corpse with formaldehyde, it is then submerged in an acetone bath and permeated with synthetic resins such as epoxy, polyester copolymer and silicone. The body is ultimately hardened in a final curing step which is achieved via ultraviolet light, gas or intense heat. From start to finish, each cadaver requires approximately 1,500 hours of labor to plastinate. Of the 10,000 willing donors that von Hagens signed since he launched his German-based Body Worlds donation program in the 90s (841 of which are Americans), his organization has accepted 531 corpses and currently processes an average of one new body daily.
Body Worlds – Rolling Out the Red Carpet For Plastinated Animals, Too
Featured in the traveling show “Body Worlds 3 & The Story of the Heart“, a 16-foot-tall plastinated giraffe, which took 22,583 man hours to prepare, is presented in translucent body slices that graduate from head to toe. Following their deaths, various other animals have been donated by zoos to von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit, including cats, bears, camels, ostriches, bulls, gorillas, chickens and the elephants Samba and Chiana, the latter of which required 64,000 hours, 40,000 liters of acetone and 4 tons of silicone each to transform into their finalized plastinated form.
Bodies, the Exhibition – Demonstrating That Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Launched around the same time as Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit, Bodies, the Exhibition is a similar global presentation of plastinated cadavers produced by one of many competitors, Premier Exhibitions. As with Body Worlds, critics argue that it’s not morally acceptable to convert human bodies into permanent museum displays while millions of morbidly curious spectators continue to pay roughly $30 admission to see what all of the hullaballoo is about. Rumors surrounding how the cadavers for this particular exhibit are actually sourced have been an ongoing source of controversy. Despite claims that they use legitimately obtained bodies from the Chinese Bureau of Police as well as Chinese residents and citizens – processing them via Dalian Medical University — the news media accuses the company of obtaining black market bodies at a price of $300 each.
Jintai Plastomic — Step In Line, Copy Cat Number Two
Created in the Nanjing Living Creature Preservation Experimental Factory, all of the body specimens touring within Jintai Plastomic exhibitions are considered to be semi-permanent thanks to a Chinese-created plastination process called “plastomic”, which was initially developed to pay homage to Doctor Gunther von Hagens’ ground-breaking and purportedly more enduring preservation technique. With countless spectators enamored and willing to pay whatever it takes to see the tour with their own two eyes, what began as a medical and scientific teaching tool has helped the show’s creators laugh all the way to the bank.
Bodies Revealed — Yet Another von Hagens Copy Cat
Sued by Gunther von Hagens for emulating some of the positions that his Body Worlds figures were posed in, the Bodies Revealed exhibit is still going strong because Premier Exhibitions (the operator of 19 different plastination human anatomy exhibitions touring 33 global venues) asserts that nothing about the human body can be copyrighted, and authorities are apparently in agreement. Operating under the premise that “without the body, the wisdom of the larger self cannot be known,” Bodies Revealed offers a three-dimensional tour of the human body that helps us to comprehend the intricacies of our anatomical systems along with “what makes us tick—how we function, what we need to survive, what destroys us and what revives us.” Continuing to ride high on the Nasdaq, the company is also behind similar cadaver exhibits in Seattle, Nevada, Florida, New York City, Atlanta as well as international tours in Great Britain and Seoul.
Could There Possibly Be Any Further Controversy? Um…You Betcha!
Dead human bodies posed like little plastic action figures are certainly a sight to behold, triggering even the most unemotional spectators to experience a weird off-kilter factor that remains long after they’ve returned to the solace of their comfortable home and tucked into a pint of this should melt all my troubles away Ben & Jerry’s. We can’t help but ask ourselves if the once living, breathing people on display really knew what they were signing themselves up for and if so, would they have been as enthusiastic about donating their bodies in the first place? Then that haunting question surfaces…is it possible that any of these fellow humans were indeed caught up in some sort of subversive body trade simply to fuel our entertainment?
To add insult upon injury, all of the body-themed exhibits mentioned above are filled with people just like you and me…stripped of their modesty-providing garments and actual protective skin, and in some cases, sliced into thin wafers of deli-like meat or dissected in a most unnerving manner. The latest controversial twist comes courtesy of the original exhibit Body Worlds and its decision to delve into the normally behind closed doors world of cadaver sex, which is also referred to as necrophilia. While the liberal minded von Hagens acknowledges that intimacy and death are long considered to be taboo topics, he asserts that “death belongs to life” and “without sex, no life would exist.” Whether you agree with his statement or not, the German anatomist has managed to hop over the boundary from risky business to red alert without skipping a beat by engaging our inner peeping Toms. How can he ever top this ka-ching ensuring strategy? He’ll surely find a way…