What would it take for you to feel comfortable seeing a dead body? Would it be enough if you knew how they’d died, or that they’d be buried later on? Is scientific curiosity enough?
Since 1995, Body Worlds has brought the dead into the public consciousness like no other modern public display, exhibiting “plastinated” human bodies with visceral immediacy. Through plastination, the water in a body’s cells is replaced with liquid plastic that eventually solidifies, halting decomposition and preserving the tissue for potentially hundreds of years.
The specimens on display in Body Worlds exhibits like the upcoming Body Worlds & The Brain at the Telus World of Science aren’t lifelike models — here, muscles, ligaments, organs and bones explode outward in vivid cross-sections of the body’s biological systems. The Calgary exhibit is an entirely new collection of 200 plastinated specimens, including 25 full bodies (each of which takes up to 1,500 man-hours to produce).
And if the tissue on display is demonstrably dead, for Dr. Angelina Whalley, the designer for all the Body Worlds exhibits, the reaction they get never is.
“I feel the exhibition is not on the dead,” she says. “I feel the exhibition is on life. When you see visitors, how they look at the specimens and discuss with their family members what they see, you have to admit that they learn a great deal about life and not death.”
Produced by the Institute for Plastination, the private foundation created by plastination inventor Gunther von Hagens (who is also Whalley’s husband), Body Worlds is a galvanizing exhibit, courting controversy from its earliest days.
Von Hagens has gone to great lengths, for example, to distance himself from Sui Hongjin, formerly the business manager of the Institute’s production site in Dailan, China, one of four such sites globally. A 2004 article in the German magazine Der Spiegel alleged the use of executed prisoners in an exhibit in Beijing, and Hongjin was eventually forced to provide a disclaimer admitting the possibility that prisoners had been used.
Hongjin went on to create a competing series of exhibitions titled “Body Works,” von Hagen decried the exhibit as an unauthorized knock-off and the Institute’s Dailan site now processes only animal subjects. “Unfortunately there was a lot of misconception [and we were] constantly being messed up with a copycat exhibit,” says Whalley. “We thought it was unethical to use subjects for display that had not agreed to be used for that purpose. So we decided to discontinue our laboratories that would include human specimens.”
It’s impossible to mention Body Worlds without these and the myriad of other issues that arise — moral, financial and otherwise. Displaying bodies continues to be about our comfort with the act of seeing them and the questions we ask to ensure that comfort.
The commitment of participants is an essential part of Body Worlds. According to Whalley, all current exhibits include only subjects who signed forms committing themselves to the process, a program that yields two to three bodies a week.
The donation forms that would-be subjects must sign are featured prominently at every Body Worlds exhibit — enlarged and easily viewed. And the program’s 31-page brochure quotes figures like Goethe and Immanuel Kant while drawing parallels to Renaissance anatomists and ongoing scientific learning — answering unease with the sublimity of science.
“I think it is a wise decision to have exhibits like this restricted to a proper environment,” says Whalley when asked whether Body Worlds exhibits might ever be used outside of their current setting.
“But we also feel that we want to democratize anatomy,” she continues. “The knowledge and the experience should not be restricted to a particular group of people. We want everyone having access to that information.”
But discomfort remains. A recent letter by Bishop Frederick Henry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary, for example, suggests the exhibit degrades the human body and questions the permanence of the plastination process. (Whalley, for one, doesn’t see a need for planning the plastinates’ ultimate disposal.) Henry also questions the financial motivations of a private interest like the Institute for Plastination.
That’s why the entire exhibit ultimately comes down to comfort — comfort that Body Worlds’ creators do their best to strengthen and its critics to weaken. In either case, one thing is certain: The human body is a hell of a thing to see.