Body Worlds & Plastination: Real Human Flesh Transformed by Plastic on Display

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Body Worlds is a traveling science/art museum of plasticized human corpses (the process is called "plastination") allowing for detailed viewing of the body that will never decay


Body Worlds: Real Human Bodies Preserved by Plastic

Is it science? Is it art? Vulgar? Macabre perhaps. You decide for yourself. The popular “Body Worlds” takes donated human corpses and ‘plasticizes’ them into everyday positions for all to see. They will not decay, age or change in any way.

Body Worlds does in plastics what mummification only came close to achieving; attain a form of immortality.

Body Worlds Exhibit. Plastination of the Human Body

Body Worlds Traveling Museum of Human Bodies

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Open to the public, this traveling art/science exhibition advertises its fare in cities where it appears. “Body Worlds” is an exhibition of preserved human bodies and internal organs, preserved by a process called “plastination.”

Fluids are removed from the human tissues (skin, muscles, internal organs, etc.) and are replaced with a clear preservative plastic. This makes the body decay-proof and effectively mummified. This process was invented by a German anatomist Gunther von Hagens in the late 1970s.

Body Worlds 2 Poster

Body Worlds, plasticized human bodies on display

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Posters give a blatant suggestion of what you can expect to see. The posters on display to attract the public don’t do the actual models full justice for there is nothing left to the imagination once you enter the exhibition.

Appearing in a number of museums (including my home city of Toronto, Canada) and other venues in North America, Europe and Asia, Body Worlds has several different venues. According to Wikipedia, Body Worlds is the world’s most popular touring attraction and has received over 26 million visitors since its opening in Tokyo in 1995.

Not All Are In Perfect Health: Cigarette Smoker's Lungs

Smoker's Lung Display, Body Worlds Museum

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There are several different Body Worlds tours, featuring different aspects of the human condition.

“Body Worlds 2 and the Brain” featured the brain and nervous system. “Body Worlds 3 and the story of the heart,” “Body Worlds 4” and “Body Worlds & the Mirror of Time” and the newest (slated to have opened Jan. 2009) is “Körperwelten & Der Zyklus Des Lebens” (Body Worlds & The Life Cycle.)

Each exhibit features approximately two dozen full bodies on display, each featuring expanded organs splayed in a position to best display their inter-connectivity and role in the body. Many of the bodies on display in life had serious health ailments such as liver cancer/cirrhosis and medical implants which include artificial hip joints or heart vales, etc.

The purpose is not to horrify the gentle viewer but to educate them to the frailties of the human condition, to show the struggle for better and pain-free existence and perhaps to raise concern for better health in life. People whom have viewed these models usually leave feeling more aware of themselves, more conscious of their humanity and aware to try and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

This particular display isn't too bad. When I was still in high school we saw videos of real smoker's lungs versus healthy lungs. Being able to view 'plasticized' models is really not much different than seeing actual images or movies of the same yet it is more intriguing because these are real human organs on display. This traveling exhibition is probably not for the meek or timid.

Cited is that several of the Body Worlds features (and von Hagens in a cameo role as himself) were in the James Bond film Casino Royale remake (2006) as well as another cameo appearance by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, of Virgin Group. In case you had missed it in the film, Mr. Branson is the gentleman being searched at the Miami airport.

Pregnant Model in Body Worlds

Body Worlds model: a pregnant woman

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Whole body plastinates featured in the Body World exhibit are from donors whom gave 'informed consent' for this purpose. They understood what they were doing and how their bodies would be used upon their death. All donors must be over the age of 18 years old.

It is cited in Wikipedia that the infant and prenatal specimens of Body Worlds are sourced from collections that already existed, previously in the care of universities or medical institutions.

Still, I find myself a little shaken by this one which shows an unborn near-term child in the mother's womb. I almost want to side with the French as say that '...the only proper place for corpses is in the cemetery.'

Sexual Act and Body Worlds Display

A new Body Worlds feature that is causing a lot of controversy recently is of a couple in coitus. Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, and the bodies are cut-open so as to reveal the most intimate of details of the reproductive act. While not intended to be pornographic or arousing but instead merely educational, many that have viewed this walk away more than a little confused by what they have witnessed. Is it science? Is it art, or is it just lasciviousness on display?

Body Worlds Skinless Model

Body Worlds model: human male with entire skin removed

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The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Most people don't recognize at first that the skin is in fact a bodily organ but it functions in every respect and has its own issues pertaining to health and diseases.

Some countries have taken exception of the display of Body Worlds and passed legislation to rule against the showing of this and similar exhibitions. The Czech Republic in 2008 created a law making it illegal to show or advertise for the showing of donated human cells, tissues (etc.) for money or similar advantages, effectively outlawing Body World.

France also has ruled in 2009 that exhibiting dead bodies for profit was "(a) violation of the respect owed to them" and further stipulated that the only proper place for corpses is in the cemetery.

The U.K., Scotland and the United State have various proposals up for review and legislation, most having to do with the matters of the sale of corpses and/or body parts and not so much as for the issue of what is done with donated cadavers. -It would be a sad event to have donated cadavers plasticized and sold to private individuals or corporations, and you just know that sooner or later plasticized bodies and organs would appear on eBay for private ownership. Laws are being crafted to make exempt this form of science exhibition and still maintain dignity.

Individual states in the U.S. are dealing with this issue on their own terms; most seem to want to allow this but provisionally. Again, mostly to prevent the sale and trade of human body parts while permitting science centers to display "for educational purposes" these items. The future will hold what shall become of Body Worlds legality to be shown in America as a whole and a lot of this will depend upon how the various states choose to handle the matter.

Some have accused Body Worlds of perpetuating conservative gender roles of their displayed models; the men are masculine while the female models are always shown as being ultra feminine. -Reclining, domestic, passive and demure, etc. A quote was that the pregnant female's reclining position was '...a pose taken straight from pornography'

Moral and religious offenses objections aside, there have even been worries that if this form of donating your body after to death become popular there might be fewer donated bodies for actual medical use (for transplant patients, burn victims, etc.) Myself, I am thinking that some of these donated bodies like the ones with liver cancer are not suitable for organ donation thank you very much and the issue is moot. But this personifies the very fear; people arguing over ownership of cadaver body/body parts after death. Will there be a Boston Legal (television program)-aired case of family members filing legal suits to prevent the showing of another family member's donated & plasticized body? Boston Legal is a television program that can be considered dramatic legal spoof and comedic, but the issue of whose body is this might very well turn out to an issue in real life.

This next image, clearly a male model looks more like the manly man from the movie The Terminator (movie) than the effeminate Mona Lisa and that is part of the stereotypical gender roles of Body Worlds that some have complained about.

The Sum of His Parts: the Human Body

Body Worlds model

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There are 'copycat' shows being toured that feature human bodies thus preserved, and they have been challenged by Body Worlds in the courts. Mostly, the challenges have only gone for the positions of the displayed bodies and the copyright protection may not hold for 'the positions' of the preserved specimens as the human body is such a marvel of creation one may not be able to patent 'a particular pose.' But here again we enter the legal fracas for if one entity can preserve/plasticize human bodies to tour in the name of science (and make profit doing so,) so can other entities and challenges of acquisition of the bodies arise, and sale of/transportation of same. The term 'gravedigger' comes to mind. If too few legally-obtained bodies are acquired, there could be illegally obtained ones on display. While Body Worlds uses only bodies procured by informed consent prior to death, the other copycat tours have not be so courteous. They have gotten their specimens from unclaimed bodies from the morgue! -Are you scared yet? Someone's runaway son or daughter could go on world-wide display unbeknownst to the family. It could really happen.

I almost miss the mystery, and the safety, of watching a 45-minute projector film in junior high school of the blackened smoker's lungs and cirrhotic livers being shown in Health class. It was as close as I'd ever get to body parts in the name of science. It felt safe. This Body Worlds makes me feel vulnerable, not so safe. It reminds me of my mortality and eventual death. When asked 'where are you going when you die' I usually answer "to Heaven." My answer might instead be more nebulous and convoluted like ' Vancouver for six months, then to the east coast city of Halifax, maybe. After that, Europe I think'


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