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Body Worlds Bizarre Real Human Specimen Exhibit

What happens when science of human anatomy, public display, and human systems of creed collide? A world of controversy over Body Worlds — a mind-blowing traveling exhibit of real preserved human bodies and body parts prepared and preserved by ‘plastination’ — the most highly attended touring exhibition in the world where you will see the human body like never before.

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Body Worlds is a rare opportunity for the journey of an intimate look at the human body for its complexity of anatomy and physiology beneath the skin’s surface of more than 200 authentic specimens of everything from individual organs to whole body displays.

The extensive collections include an array of healthy and diseased organs, body sections and slices, and full-body specimens in dramatic life-like poses in detailed presentation of organs and body parts which reveal how the muscles, bones and other systems work together through bodies posed in motion during athletic performance in soccer, gymnastics, archery, cycling, dancing and power walking.

You can observe gracefully posed pairs of bodies and 3D slices to gain insights otherwise impossible to see, and unique views of the circulatory system through organs and full-body specimens of the veins and arteries.

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Man and Woman. Photo Iwona Kellie

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Iced Duet. Photo Jurvetson

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Photo Jurvetson

Cased in glass amid the full body plastinates are specimens of real human organs shown in positions that enhance the role of certain systems, some depicting various medical conditions.

There are bodies with prosthetics such as artificial hip joints or heart valves, a liver with cirrhosis, and the lungs of a smoker and non-smoker placed side by side. A curtained-off prenatal wing features fetuses and embryos, some with congenital disorders.

The exhibit states that its purpose and mission is to reveal inner anatomical human structures in a one-of-a-kind physiology lesson, thereby educating people about the human body and anatomy, leading to better health awareness — viewing firsthand how lifestyle choices impact your health.

German anatomist Gunther von Hagens invented and developed plastination in 1977 — a revolutionary and groundbreaking preservation technique which replaces bodily fluids and fat with reactive plastics, thus preserving human tissue in its natural state.

Body World touts that their exhibitions are the only anatomical displays in the world that use donated bodies, willed by donors for plastination by a donation program. To date, more than 9,200 people have agreed to donate their bodies for plastination and use in the exhibits.

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Cross-sections. Photo 177

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The Family. Photo E-Mendoza

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The Family with Child. Photo E-Mendoza

About Plastination

Plastination is a technology to preserve anatomical specimens which allows bodies to be displayed in a durable and lifelike fashion for instruction and education, giving you an opportunity to appreciate what it really means to be human.

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Plastination process. Photo Body Worlds. © Institute for Plastination. 2001 – 2008.
All rights reserved.

All bodily fluids and soluble fats are extracted and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers, such as silicon rubber. The specimen is then cured and hardened with light, heat, or certain gases, so that all tissue structures are retained in permanence.

It takes an average of 1,500 hours to transform a specimen into a whole-body plastinate.
Plastinated specimens are dry and odorless and retain their natural structure — identical to their pre-preservation state down to the microscopic level.

“Slice Plastination” is a special variation of this preservation technique. Frozen body specimens are cut into slices which are then plastinated, a useful teaching aid for cross-sectional anatomy.

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A woman reclining on her side with her arm raised to reveal her cut away torso, and 8-month fetus – with its position and effect on her internal organs. The woman chose to donate her body with the fetus if it could not be saved when she discovered that she had a terminal illness. This figure is usually displayed in a closed-off area of the exhibition, along with other displays concerning human reproduction and development. Photo Alanna Ralph

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Pregnant Woman. Photo E-Mendoza

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Fetus in the Womb. Photo E-Mendoza

About Body Worlds

Schooled in anatomy and medicine at the University of Heidelberg, Dr. Gunther von Hagens founded the Institute for Plastination (IfP) while carrying out his teaching and research activities at the Anatomical Institute of the University of Heidelberg in 1993.
In 1995, the Institute for Plastination developed the first Body Worlds exhibit, thus enabling the public an extraordinary view inside the human body, previously only accessible to medical students and researchers.

In addition to updating and operating the exhibit tours, the Institute for Plastination continues to provide specimens and teach the process to more than 400 medical research and teaching institutes in 40 countries worldwide.

The specimens are prepared solely for this purpose and only passed on directly to recognized educational and research establishments and scientific museums, but not to private individuals or dealers.

Despite all of the progress, the need for further research is immense, such as new polymers that could be used to retain the color of tissues and to improve plastination results for specimens such as the eyes, which are difficult to preserve.

Body Worlds 4 is supported by the British Red Cross, the Association of European Cancer Leagues and the Polycystic Kidney Disease charity.

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Photo 177

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Photo Sookie

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Photo Steve Jurvetson


The shows have been surrounded by controversy for a number of reasons. Church groups in Europe and some Jewish Rabbis have repeatedly denounced the shows as disrespectful, stating that it cheapens human life, is inconsistent with reverence towards the human body, and is more artistic and exploitative than educational.

Doctor von Hagens has been accused of using bodies of the dead who had not given consent, such as prison inmates and hospital patients from Kyrgyzstan and executed prisoners from China — the latter which led to a lawsuit against Der Spiegel that Doctor von Hagens won. All whole body plastinates exhibited in Body Worlds came from donors who gave informed consent by their body donation program.

A commission created by the California Science Center in Los Angeles in 2004 confirmed von Hagens’ statements in an Ethical Summary document. In the case of children informed consent is obtained from the parents. Some fetal specimens come from established morphological collections. However, NPR and others questioned whether documents were ever matched to bodies in this analysis.

The exhibit has been accused of perpetuating gender stereotypes. Male plastinates are presented in active, and heroic roles — the Horseman, Muscleman and his Skeleton, Fencer, Runner, and Chess Player — while some female plastinates are shown in the context of motherhood, beauty and passivity — a Ballerina wearing a ballerina’s slipper, Reclining Pregnant Woman, a woman whose womb is exposed to show her unborn child, and Angel, whose feet are posed as if wearing high heels, with parts of her feet shaped into stilettos. There are, however, women portrayed as athletes, namely The Swimmer, Figure Skater and Archer.

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Photo Spankmeeehard

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Photo Spankmeeehard

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How veins and arteries run through an arm. Photo E-Mendoza

There have been concerns regarding regulations for plastinate exhibits in general. Reporting from Dalian, China for The New York Times, David Barboza described “a ghastly new underground mini-industry” with “little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs.”

There are claims that the exhibit of bodies for commercial profit has reduced the donations of bodies for medical learning.

“Somebody at some level of government ought to be able to look at a death certificate, a statement from an embalmer, and donation documents. That’s a reasonable standard to apply.” said Paul Harris, Director of North Carolina State Board of Funeral Services.

However, to ensure the privacy and anonymity required for whole-body plastinates, the Institute for Plastination maintains a firewall between body donors’ documentation and finished plastinated bodies.

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The Spine. Photo E-Mendoza

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Flamenco dancer displayed at the ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition at the California Science
Center in Los Angeles. Photo AFP / Getty

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A Hurdler displayed at Body Worlds

Recently Dr. Von Hagens initiated another educational venture using cadavers, called ‘Gunther’s ER’ — a reality show where Dr. Von Hagens mutilates cadavers to show the effects of severe traumatic events, such as car accidents.

International Trade experts object to the way bodies for commercial display are imported because the way their categorization codes, as “art collections” don’t require CDC stamps and death certificates that are required for medical cadavers.

In an ethical analysis, Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, compares cadaver displays to pornography in that they reduce the subject to “the manipulation of body parts stripped of any larger human significance.”

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Display of a body’s central and peripheral nervous system. The plastination process may
take up to a year for this kind of detail. Photo AFP / Getty

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Plastinated head reveals structures of muscle and skin juxtaposed with the skull beneath.
Photo AFP / Getty

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Kneeling plastinated body. Photo AFP / Getty

Fascination and Fixation

Toney Dixon’s curiosity and fascination with dead bodies from childhood drew her and her twin sister Erlyene Toney-Alvarez to Body Worlds, where she could view preserved human specimens bisected and stripped of skin.

“It’s like standing in the mirror and seeing yourself in a totally new way.” said Dixon.

The pair were so impressed that they signed up to donate their earthly remains to the exhibit. They’re among the thousands who believe that having their bodies dissected, preserved and displayed will serve a greater purpose than burial or cremation.

“I thought, since I like to think outside the box, this would be a really good way to preserve our bodies instead of the typical funeral.” Toney-Alvarez said. “It’s also something I can go to my death feeling good about, like I made a contribution to humankind.”

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Body hangs in suspension at the California Science Center. Photo AFP / Getty

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A plastinated digestive tract. Photo AFP / Getty

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Plastinated body that’s been split open to reveal facial muscles and the blood vessels
surrounding the heart. Photo AFP / Getty

Since 1965, Americans have had the right to will their bodies to science when the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act established the human body as property. With that law, a donor’s wishes supersede those of the next of kin.

Some researchers credit recent increases in body donations to relaxed social mores.

Medical schools have typically been the most common recipients of willed specimens in America until von Hagens — who earned the moniker Dr. Frankenstein in Europe for performing a public dissection — emerged with an alternative for plastination.

Academic institutions pay the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg anywhere from $200 to $60,000 for these plastinates. Von Hagens says he relies on donors not only as a source of specimens, but also as representations of Body Worlds’ philosophy.

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Rib cage of a plastinated body. Photo AFP / Getty

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Photo Getty Images

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Photo Body Worlds. © Institute for Plastination. 2001 – 2008. All rights reserved.

“I feel it is in line with democratic principles that you can decide in your lifetime whether to go to the cemetery or put yourself on display in an exhibition to teach the next generation.” he says.
“It is very, very important for the donors to know the purpose of the exhibit, that it is not entertainment, it is education and enlightenment. I have to be in peace with those on display.”

Marc Rohner, a pathologist’s assistant in Columbus, Ohio, donated his leg to Body Worlds when it had to be amputated in 2006 to remove a malignant giant cell tumor, because he wanted others to learn from it.

“What you see in a picture or on “CSI” does not do justice to what the real human body looks like or how it functions.” said Rohner. “By having a three-dimensional leg or black lung in front of you, you have areas of focus and details you can’t see in a photo.”

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Photo Guardian

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Photo Guardian

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Photo Guardian

Rohner became the first living person to give a body part to the Institute, but acknowledges that the exhibits are not for everyone.

But Toney-Alvarez says she will visit Body Worlds, even if her mother and sister are on display.
“Once you have passed on, it’s just a shell. The memories are in the heart and in the mind.” she said.

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Photo Guardian

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Photo Guardian

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Photo Guardian

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Photo Guardian

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The Poker Playing Trio, 2006. Photo Body Worlds. © Institute for Plastination. 2001 – 2008.
All rights reserved.

Featured in the 2006 film Casino Royale. In the player on the right, both parietal bones were lifted to make the brain visible from behind. The brain has been horizontally sectioned and folded out. Beneath it is the cerebellum, below which the spinal cord is visible inside the vertebral canal. In the player on the left, the abdomen has been opened, giving a view of the intestinal loops. The unusual and striking head of the central figure was created by separating the frontal bone and cheekbones from the posterior skull bones.

Body Worlds is currently on display at TELUS World of Science in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada up to October 13 2008, Baltimore, Maryland Science Center until September 1 2008, September 7 2008 in Los Angeles at the California Science Center, The Mosi Museum of Science in Castlefield, Manchester, and permanently on display at the Plastinarium in Guben, Germany.

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