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Body Worlds Vital Exhibition Comes To Life

11 May

Just a quick post here to highlight an exhibition that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

The International Centre for Life, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, is playing host to the Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Vital exhibition from the 17th of May to the 2nd of November 2014.  This  promises to be an interesting opportunity for the public to see first hand the exhibition of human bodies and associated prosected organs and tissues, and a chance to learn about the value of human anatomy and physiology.  As well as the main exhibition there will also be numerous special events taking place throughout the seven month showing.  This includes the opportunity to attend public lectures on the ethics of displaying dead individuals, the relationship between art and the dead (featuring one Paul Koudounaris) and the chance to learn how to draw the human body, amongst other topics as yet to be disclosed.

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Exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The display has a number of human bodies and prosected organs and tissues on show, often promoting a healthy lifestyle message. A number of the bodies are placed into classical poses from the Renascence era.  Image credit: Centre for Life.

The Body Worlds organisation has been around for a while now and is currently running a number of exhibitions around the world, although it has not been without its criticisms (see below).  The International Centre for Life itself is a pretty unique complex of buildings (a science village) which plays a major focus in funding and researching the life sciences in the heart of Newcastle, as well providing a family friendly interactive museum at the Centre for Life itself.

Ethics

The bioarchaeology researcher Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has a particularly good blog entry detailing the varied views on the ethics of displaying human remains for the public and her post mentions specific criticisms of a previous incarnation of Body Worlds.  This has focused, in the past, on the actual providence of the bodies of the individuals on display and of the actual feasibility of the anatomical positions of the bodies themselves (Moore & Brown 2004, see this 2006 NPR article for further details).  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition has made explicit announcements stating that each and every body or organ on display has been donated specifically for the Body Worlds Vital exhibition with the blessing of the person when they were alive.  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition, housed at the Life Science Centre, has been thoroughly vetted by the Human Tissue Authority and the exhibition approved (the report can be read here).

The Exhibition

I have been twice now to view the exhibition, and I really think that it pays to visit these types of exhibitions a few times.  The first time I visited by myself, allowing plenty of time to become acquainted with the outlay and display of the human bodies.  The second time I went with a few friends of mine and experienced a different kind of interaction with the displays.  Each time I went I saw a mixed age audience with both women and men of all stripes taking in the show.  Most importantly I saw enthused children looking at the bodies, asking their parents what each part of the body does and why, sometimes asking pretty tough and interesting questions (‘how many red blood cells are there in the body?’).  This was fantastic to see and especially parents taking their time to explain the human body, the differences as the body ages and the anatomical differences between the sexes, to their children.

The exhibition layout seemed a bit all  over, with no main overarching theme, I had expected a lifespan approach with the bodies displayed in various approaches as you went along but instead they were placed along the edge of the exhibition length punctuated by prosected tissues.  Each little area often a health point (obesity, cancer, dementia and over-drinking to name but a few) highlighted with a diseased and non-diseased specimen on show.  Personally it was a bit too black and white moral wise, no care giving was mentioned.  The terminology sometimes changed from the common name (collar bone) to the medical (sub-clavian  artery), which may confuse visitors as to the medical terms used- it would have made more sense to stick to one approach and to explain it to the viewer what precise terms used meant.

The bodies themselves were spell-binding although all lacked adipose fat, which had been removed as a part of the plastination process.  This made me curious as it highlighted ‘perfect’ bodies, whereas in real life most people have, and need, an amount of body fat for survival.  Furthermore the individuals are not named, as a matter of course, as the individuals had only died within the past few decades.  But it did bring up an interesting discussion point with my friend Will in the pub afterwards.  Archaeology often deals with the nameless dead, whereas this actively made the bodies anonymous, to represent a human ‘individual’ and not a person with a family or a social package.  A part of me still can’t help but wonder what their lives were like, who did they love and what did they do with their lives.  The posing of the fleshed bodies was certainly unique and allowed for an in-depth look into the musculature and nervous systems of several individuals.

Overall I really felt that the public had the opportunity and chance to look at the human body in all of its wonder.  The body was not hiding in morgues, research rooms or funeral homes, it was on display for all to admire and learn from.  Visit, you will not be disappointed.

Preserving Bodies

Whilst this is just a quick post, I would like to highlight that the plastination technique that Gunther von Hagens uses is but one method of preservation for cadaveric material.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, at the University of Dundee in Scotland, currently uses a fascinating technique called the Thiel Cadaver Facility to preserve human cadavers for use in anatomical and forensic laboratory sessions.  This soft-fix method preserves the body’s tissues and ensures a life-like quality of flexibility which enables tissues such as muscles and the skin to be flexed fully during teaching and dissections sessions.  The Thiel process, although long, also helps to retain the original hues of the body as opposed to the usual formaldehyde method, which usually leaves bodies and tissues looking pale and anaemic.

Further Information

  • A detailed Centre for Life FAQ on the Body Worlds Vital exhibition can be found here.
  • Learn about the history and the aims of the science village The International Centre for Life here.
  • Jess Beck’s Bone Broke entry on the ethics of displaying human remains can be found here.  Particularly of interest is the double standard of criticism that exists in the ethics between museum and academic institutions displaying of human remains compared to the ‘overtly commercial nature’ of the Body Worlds style of exhibition of human remains.  It is a thoughtful point that Beck raises in her blog entry.
  • Visit Empire de la Mort, the website of artist, historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.
  • Learn about Gunther von Hagens intriguing method of plastination that he uses on both human and animal cadavers.
  • Learn about the Thiel cadaver technique here or here, which is currently being pioneered in the UK at the University of Dundee.

Bibliography

Moore, M. C. & Brown, C. M. 2004. Gunther Von Hagens and Body Worlds Part 1: The Anatomist as Prosektor and Proplastiker. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist. 267B (1): 8-14. (Open Access).