In April, the Body Worlds Vital exhibition arrived in Auckland, New Zealand with a display of 150 plastinated corpses.
Its founder, Dr Gunther Von Hagens, invented the process of plastination, a process whereby fluids and fats in corpses are replaced by silicone polymers and epoxy resins.
Since then, the exhibition has registered visits from more than 50 schools locally, as a component of the health education curriculum. With the support of Life Education Trust, Partners insurance and ATEED, the organisers believe the Bodies exhibition to be a great opportunity to learn about health and human anatomy.
On the other hand, Body Worlds has also been criticised for its exaggerated, objectified display of human bodies as well as its exploitation of the human fascination in the macabre.
Earlier last month, RNZ interviewed Dr Simon Chaplin, the previous director of Museums and Special Collections at the Royal College of Surgeons.
On the subject of treating the deceased with respect, Dr Chaplin said that the context in which the bodies are presented, makes a huge difference.
“It’s something we were intensely sensitive to at the Royal College of Surgeons when we displayed a museum there,” said Dr Chaplin. “We were conscious that when John Hunter presented his museum in the 18th century, he went a very great length to make it look beautiful, but not to try and overplay the contents.”
“It was presented with a sense of order and dignity,” said Dr Chaplin.
He said that the human body “excite[s] very strong feelings in people, and you don’t need to do a lot more than show things in order to excite people’s emotions.”
“So I think you have to be very careful. Restraint is often the best approach. And one of the criticism I’ve heard on Body Worlds is that sometimes there’s a lack of restraint on the way things are shown. And certainly, they do go for the more spectacular poses of some of the bodies.”
Indeed, one of Body World’s trademarks is its artistic display of specimens.
An extract by Paul Hond from the Columbia magazine described the lifelike, and yet inhuman product of plastination.
“A male cadaver, strung with muscle and ligaments, carried a football in the yearbook style of a collegiate star; a cadaver and a skeleton faced each other, fingertips touching, like dancers in a pair spin; and a sinewy conductor raised his baton, doubtless for a performance of ‘Funeral March of a Marionette.’”
Some of Von Hagens’ finest plastination have blurred boundaries between art and education. His earlier plastinates such as “The Drawer Man,” “The Chess Player” and “The Rearing Horse and the Rider;” and the title of the exhibition all bear his signature or his name, much like an artist.
The incorporation of contemporary art in Body Worlds remains one of its most unique, and yet most criticised point.
Viewing the deceased as artifacts: Why does it matter?
In the history of medical museums, anatomical collections have been largely hidden from public gaze. That’s because people were unsettled upon seeing a human being who was once living, turned into scientific specimen intended for dissection or public inspection.
To have an audience that is distanced and detached from these emotions, Body Worlds has arranged the bodies in various poses to make them appear lifelike and dramatic.
Indeed, some visitors have praised Von Hagens on his precision with plastination and his attention to detail. The meticulous display of blood vessels and muscles is certainly a learning experience for health specialists. The comparison of healthy and diseased organs, accompanied with descriptions, prove to be a valuable lesson concerning health conditions associated with smoking and arthritis.
Von Hagens’ wife, Dr Angelina Whalley, said that she has seen “visitors ditch their cigarette packs at the sight of a smoker’s lung in the exhibition.”
However, critics have also commented on the effectiveness of whole-body plastinates as an educational tool.
In the novel “The Scar of Visibility,” Petra Kupper said, “The exhibition does not foreground individual stories; instead we see corpses in generic poses. Family background, name, exact cause and time of death are subjugated to the structuring process of the scientific gaze, exposing muscle and flesh, no individuality.”
Exposing the general public and primary school children to cadavers with no context of who the donor had been, and no information about why they have donated their bodies, has prompted critics to raise some concerns.
Perhaps the lack of cadaver-identification has reinforced previous disputes concerning the illegal sourcing of bodies from China and a Russian medical examiner without prior consent from donors. However critics have also commented on the exhibition from the standpoint of education.
In the study Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS: Selling Beautiful Education, Lawrence Burns suggested that the bodies “need to be depersonalized so that they can be viewed as dynamic objects rather than as formerly-living human beings that should be mourned.”
“However, part of what it means to empathize with the specimens on display is to feel that one has more in common with them as persons in a rich sense rather than as generic bodies.”
For physicians, “the loss of individuality is also a lost opportunity for teaching very valuable lessons about the importance of personal narratives and fostering a relationship with the patient in the clinical encounter.”
Some locals are concerned that such disconnection may result in the loss of appreciation for the dignity of cadavers, especially amongst youth.
A review from the Rev’d Dr Noel Cox said, “Children and youth should not be exposed to human corpses in this manner, for it may lessen their appreciation for the dignity of the human body.”
He added, “The display of human corpses for entertainment, thinly veiled as educational, is wrong.”
“Cadavers may be used for medical teaching purposes, for which they are exposed to view, but not publicly.”
A major issue in Body Worlds’ claims of health benefits is that its effects remain unknown. Nor has there been polls on whether class trips has benefited our youth in their learning.
An analytical study conducted by Lawrence Burns pointed out the educational benefits of Body Worlds has only been evaluated once following the 1999 Austria exhibit. A major constraint of the study lies in the difficulty of measuring improvements in lifestyle as a result of the body exhibit. While participants were followed up once after attending the exhibition, little conclusion can be drawn from one sample, nor from claims that they were simply taking better care of themselves.
In his study, Burns concluded that the educational value of the exhibition is mixed. He suggested that plastination benefits specialists by conveying “precise anatomical details that specialists must learn to identify.”
However, in the case of plastination, Burns suggested that the general public may not be able to appreciate the complexity of the human body to such detail.
“Instead, the general humanist lessons most suited to the general public regarding human mortality, the need to care for our bodies, and the complexity of our bodies can be taught in many other ways that are more accessible, cheaper (often free!), and much less controversial,” concluded Burns.
Possible alternatives include mobile health education classrooms, speaking to those who are ill and visiting rest homes where people can provide our youth with insights to the fragility of the human body by sharing personal experiences.
After all, at the heart of medical stories, teaching aids and models is the story of health, and we mustn’t forget that.
References and further reading:
Burns, Lawrence (2007) ‘Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS: Selling Beautiful Education‘, The American Journal of Bioethics, 7:4, 12 – 23