The Body Worlds Exhibition: Macabre Freak Circus or Exploration of the Human Anatomy?

by Caroline Achieng Otieno

Within my community as in many African communities, death is seen as a great and irredeemable tragedy even when it occurs in old age. The reverence with which the Luo people view their ancestors is observed in the performance of a series of rituals and many feasts for the dead. They perform more than ten kinds of different rituals for the deceased, largely held in their rural homeland. In this regard, the Luos are generally known in Kenya as a people seriously concerned with their burial place, far more than any other ethnic group. The Luo believe that the dead can see what the living are doing and show their veneration for deceased ancestors by calling on them to bless their homes. The community holds the strong belief that if these rituals are not performed and if burial does not occur in a designated place, which is normally on the ancestral land, then chira (curse or bad luck) will follow the family left behind.

Due to advances in medical science, there is the thirst for more knowledge and the prolongation of human life. In many instances increased knowledge can be gotten from cadavers. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the German anatomist, developed a system where cadavers are plastinated, frozen for all time and transported from one part of the world to the other for display and awareness - not only for the medical student, but for the amateur, the curious, and the shocked onlooker. The anatomy and physiology exhibit developed by Dr. von Hagens features more than 200 real, preserved human specimens. It includes both entire bodies as well as individual organs, body parts, and transparent body slices. Since 1995 the exhibit has toured throughout Europe, America, and Asia and has been viewed by over 34 million people. Body Worlds & The Story of the Heart is currently on display in Amsterdam Netherlands at the EXPO Zuidas until June 17.

The most fascinating, yet controversial, thing about the Body Worlds’ exhibit is that real bodies are plastinated in everyday poses. There is the basketballer in flight, a ballerina pair, the poker-playing trio, the archer or the runner, and even a pregnant woman lying down. The plastinates are displayed in the context of science, health, and medical education, and create an “atmosphere” of respect. The key motive of the exhibition as described in the Body Worlds’ catalogue, is “for the medical enlightenment and appreciation of lay people.” It is amazing to see body organs in glass cases and view the differences between healthy organs and sick organs – for example, the startling differences between a healthy lung and the lung of a smoker darkened by tar.

The demographics of the exhibit viewers are conspicuous. There are barely a handful of people with African heritage, but crowds of Caucasians milling around. Pieter Gorcsum, a short dark man from Surinam, tells me he is studying to be a nurse and his school paid for him to attend the exhibition for learning purposes. “I am certain if it was not compulsory to attend, most likely I would not have come,” he quips, as he shifts his rucksack slightly to jot a few notes in a small notebook. Jana van Hoorn giggles with three of her schoolmates. She is a teenage blond Dutch girl and came with three of her classmates to see what Body Worlds was about. “Has she learnt anything?” I ask. She replies, “Yes, I will take care of my body more, eat well, and work out."

The plastination procedure, invented in 1977 by Dr. von Hagens at the University of Heidelberg, has irrevocably changed the traditional field of anatomy and its audience. Dr. von Hagens is quoted as saying, “The purpose of plastination from its inception was a scientific one: to educate medical students. However, the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired him to think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realisation that he had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination.” Prof. Dr Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University states in the review “This exhibit gives the public an opportunity usually reserved for medical professionals. Viewers get a chance to look inside their own bodies and experience the wonder and respect for what it means to be human.”

Plastination is a technique that stops the decomposition of the dead body and produces solid, odourless, and durable anatomical specimens for scientific and medical training. Many questions fill the minds of those gazing upon these bodies and body parts, the biggest being “Where exactly are the bodies from?” Yvonne de Vries of Body Worlds Amsterdam tells me that, “All the bodies on display are of people from whom consent has been obtained, whom have expressed their wishes to further the knowledge of others through voluntarily donating their bodies for this purpose.” The Body Worlds catalogue states, however, “Though the full-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; some specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes.”

What about ethical issues? Is it right to keep bodies unburied and preserved for all time in this fashion? Are their souls having no rest? Many think it is an irreverent act to dissect and preserve bodies for display; after all, at one point, these people walked the earth. The Body Worlds exhibition makes it clear that “In the case of exhibits of plastinated human bodies or organs, a special review has to verify that bodies and organs have been donated with full and informed consent of the donors...It needs to be guaranteed that exhibitions are in compliance with laws and regulations, in particular when cultural, ethical, or religious controversies can be expected.” The Body Worlds exhibition understands “that sensitive issues such as the public display of plastinated human bodies and organs will cause cultural and ethical debates,” and “such debates are an essential part of science education.”

Plastinator Gunther von Hagens wants to raise awareness among visitors to take care of their bodies: “Through the plastinate we recognize ourselves, our vulnerability and the miracle that we are. This physical self-recognition sparks a new-conscious lifestyle which moves our hearts.” It is the hope of Dr. Gunther von Hagens and Dr. Angelina Whalley, creators of the Body Worlds exhibitions, that The Story of the Heart Amsterdam will inspire visitors towards heart-centred and heart-healthy living.

On my way out, just next to the exit, I spot a glass casing full of cigarette packets. I am sure that those who threw out their cigarettes have had their last puffs, and hopefully will now enjoy the comfort of a healthy pair of lungs.

About the author:
Caroline Achieng Otieno is a citizen of Kenya currently residing in the Netherlands. Her work experience has involved work as a Flight Operations Officer in the East and Central African region; (communicating with pilots on radio) and as well work as a Staff Writer for a regional youth magazine directed to the youth in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Since 2008, she has been contributing articles on a monthly basis to African Bulletin, based in Eindhoven; and has writted for Helium, The Displaced African Blog and the African Center Blog. She is currently involved in human rights activism and philanthropy and has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations (cum-laude honours); Master's studies in International Law, and a Masters in International Law with a human rights specialization. Caroline's passion is women's rights and protection of children especially in conflict zones. She is currently involved in establishing a non-governmental organization for the advancement of the girl-child in Kenya.

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2 comments on “The Body Worlds Exhibition: Macabre Freak Circus or Exploration of the Human Anatomy?
  1. djohnsonak says:

    Thank you for your article, Caroline. I went to see Body Worlds when I lived in Portland, Or with my family a few years ago and was captivated in so many ways. I think you bring up some amazing points about the showcase, and I want to address the idea of introspection.
    I agree that Body Worlds offers viewers the opportunity to do introspection at a number of levels that you discuss. After viewing it myself, I remember thinking about not only my health and life after death, but also, what are the true consequences for my current actions? My diet, exercise, my tendinitis,the way I sleep, and my spirituality all affect not only the way I feel, but the vary basis of my cellular structure. The ability to see INSIDE another human as a “lay person” opened up a new dialogue for my family and I. No self help book will every be able to compete with the reality of Body Worlds. To those who donated their bodies, I am grateful. I feel they have given back to our global society in a very powerful way. Whatever they may have believed in regards to the after-life, I hope that they are enjoying that good karma!

  2. archy says:

    You are most welcome djohnsonak..I was grateful as well when I left the exhibition, it made me aware of the complexity of the human body and how everything has to work together in unison even for our everyday simplest of activities. It encouraged not only myself but many other attendees to make healthy life choices. It was great that other people made the choices to avail their bodies for other people to learn more about the workings of their bodies; this knowledge once reserved for the medical fraternity is now available to all through body worlds and I share your sentiments..thank you for your comments!

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