Laker or Clipper? Hard to tell with this basketball player. Not only is he not wearing a team jersey, he’s not wearing his own skin.
This nameless, skinless “athlete” has just arrived in Los Angeles from Frankfurt, Germany, to be part of the American premiere of the popular but controversial “Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies,” opening Friday at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.
On display will be more than 200 human specimens, about 25 of them whole bodies, each preserved through a special “plastination” technique and placed on view in lifelike, free-standing poses.
The exhibitions created by German scientist Gunther von Hagens have attracted more than 14 million viewers in Europe and Asia since their 1995 premiere in Tokyo. With each stop, they have prompted outrage and indignation as well as long lines of the scientifically inquisitive and merely curious.
Visitors to the Science Center can expect to see whole bodies and parts, skinned and dissected, laid open to show bone, muscle and nerve, all in minute detail. On display will be cautionary tales in the form of blackened smokers’ lungs and clogged arteries. Here is the body of a man, posed as a chess player, his brain exposed. Another man dangles his own skin in one hand, as though he casually shrugged off an overcoat. And there is the astonishing combination of two riders astride a rearing, preserved horse.
Rendered dry and odorless by a preservation process that replaces body fluid with plastics, human tissue feels stiff but flexible, like the head of a drum.
Von Hagens, 59, says that despite its shock value, “Body Worlds” is about science, education and enlightenment for the public. “First of all, it is health education, by specifically comparing healthy and diseased organs,” he said in a telephone interview. “Before the exhibitions, when I used to give lectures, I noticed that the cleaning lady and the doorman were more interested than my colleagues. That is what makes plastination different -- they start to identify with the specimens.”
To address concerns about “Body Worlds,” the Science Center contracted an independent bioethicist, Dr. Hans-Martin Sass, to travel to Germany to review the records of each whole body to be shown in Los Angeles. The center also assembled an ethics committee of religious leaders and bioethicists to review the exhibition and polled the reaction of Science Center visitors to postcard photos of bodies before courting “Body Worlds” for Los Angeles.
The Science Center gave “Body Worlds” the museum equivalent of a PG-13 rating: Attendees younger than 13 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. In addition, a portion of the display, including preserved fetuses as well as the whole body of a woman and her fetus at the eighth month of pregnancy, will be displayed in a separate area so those who do not want to see them won’t be caught by surprise.
Science Center President Jeffrey N. Rudolph said it wasn’t difficult to persuade museum board members of the value of “Body Worlds.” “I honestly believe it’s the exhibit with the strongest impact of any that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “One of the unique things about museums in general is that we show authentic things, things that are real. In this case it’s something that is very close to us, that has impact for our own bodies.”
Even so, the unorthodox displays have won Von Hagens some unflattering monikers: “Dr. Death,” “Frankenstein,” “the new Mengele” or “The Plastinator.” Some say presenting bodies in lifelike poses makes him more sick-minded sculptor than scientist, more entertainer than teacher.
In London in 2002, a patron attacked one of the bodies with a hammer and another threw a blanket over the preserved cadaver of a pregnant woman. In Mannheim, Germany, in 1998, local clergy members reportedly decried the exhibit as an assault on human dignity, and doctors there challenged its value.
With his trademark black fedora, Von Hagens, a native of the former East Germany who says he spent two years in prison for attempting to flee the country, has a reputation as a showman. Concurrent with the presentation of “Body Worlds” in London, he defied authorities and performed the first public autopsy in that city in more than 170 years. To promote his work, he appeared on a float in Berlin’s Love Parade wearing a bodysuit painted with internal organs.
He also has fielded pointed questions about the histories of the bodies he displays. Over the years, he said, he has purchased specimen collections from universities and museums, many in storage or slated to be destroyed. “I accept these specimens and in this way preserve anatomical heritage,” he said.
Media have questioned whether bodies acquired from German universities or research institutions may have been victims of the Nazis. But Von Hagens said the institutions were required to self-police and remove questionable specimens before he began acquiring them.
For “Body Worlds,” some partial specimens will be from purchased collections, but Von Hagens said all whole bodies were donated specifically to his company and for display. Since the exhibitions began, about 6,000 people have signed papers to donate, Von Hagens said. (Most are still alive. Of the about 180 who have died, some have become exhibits.)
In addition to the exhibitions, Von Hagens operates three facilities -- in Germany, China and Kyrgyzstan -- that preserve specimens from around the world for academic and other purposes. He said that laws vary on how bodies may be donated to science, but that the institutions from which he acquires specimens abide by local law.
Exhibition organizers maintain that few “Body Worlds” visitors -- 2% by their count -- have been uncomfortable. Rudolph said that museum officials who saw the exhibition at its previous stop, in Frankfurt, found the real preserved bodies much less disturbing than photos or video images of them.
Rudolph added that although “Body Worlds” staffers said the occasional visitor did faint, it was less from shock than from worried patrons deciding not to eat before attending.
At the Science Center, donation forms will be available for those so inclined, but Rudolph said the museum will not handle the paperwork. That must be returned to Von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany. “We take no position” on whether attendees choose to donate, Rudolph said. Von Hagens himself is a donor, along with all members of his immediate family, including his wife and business partner, Angelina Whalley, who like Von Hagens holds a medical degree.
Even though Von Hagens said many donors wanted to be identified in the exhibition, “Body Worlds” omits all such information, including age and cause of death. After preservation, no body can be identified by sight alone.
Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Brentwood, who served on the museum’s ethics committee, called the exhibition exciting. “I was very proud that the Science Center board and the professionals involved were willing to take the risk of receiving some flak for the higher game of educating the public about health and the human body,” he said.
The Rev. Cecil L. Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, also a committee member, agreed. “The plastinates teach unity of the body parts and the interdependence of each with the other. The lesson extends beyond biological unity to the sociological community.”
“Body Worlds” is the largest special exhibition ever mounted at the Science Center, which says it expects 400,000 to 800,000 visitors. The center will extend its hours through the show’s closing date, Jan. 23, and it will present the IMAX film “The Human Body” concurrently at the center’s theater.
The center will charge $12 for adults to see “Body Worlds.” Although its regular exhibitions are free, the museum occasionally charges admission to special exhibitions, such as the 2003 “Titanic” touring show.
Center officials would not disclose how the money would be divided between the county-run nonprofit museum and Von Hagens, but said the center’s cut would cover its expenses, with any excess plowed back into its programs and exhibits.
Von Hagens said he had made about $18 million through plastination. About $16 million has been used to maintain and operate his three facilities. Most of the remainder, he said, has been devoted to upgrading the exhibitions. In addition to the one in Los Angeles, another is on view in Taipei.
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Do You Want to Know How He Does It?
Gunther von Hagens invented the body preservation technique called “plastination” while studying for his medical degree at the University of Heidelberg. For the next 20 years, he refined the process that prevents decay, preserves microscopic detail and, he says, allows a specimen to last at least 1,000 years.
When a body is put through the process, first, decomposition of the tissue is stopped by using formaldehyde or by freezing. The cadaver is then either dissected or sawed into slices, depending on how it will be permanently preserved.
Frozen body fluids are replaced by acetone in a frigid (minus 13 degrees) acetone bath.
Most specimens, particularly bones and intestines, must be defatted in room-temperature acetone before plastination can begin. In a vacuum chamber, the acetone is squeezed out of the specimen and gradually replaced with plastic.
The plastic of choice for whole-organ specimens is usually silicone rubber, because it gives the specimens elasticity and a natural look. For cross-sections, a hard, polymerized epoxy resin is used. The silicone rubber is gas-cured; the resin is heat-cured.
Because the weight of the water in the human body is about equal to the weight of the infused plastic, a plastinated body weighs about the same as a living one.
Each whole body specimen requires up to 1,500 hours of work to prepare, usually over eight to 12 months. Because the process is so labor-intensive, costs average $35,000 to $45,000 per body.