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Body Worlds 4 or Death becomes us

Nicola Mostyn sees dead people all cut up and opened out and finds it moving

Published on February 21st 2008.

Body Worlds 4 or Death becomes us

The Bishop of Manchester is not happy with Gunther von Hagens. He called the current exhibition of real human bodies at MOSI (The Museum of Science and Industry) a “little shop of horrors”, a “Victorian Freak Show” and “modern twist on body-snatching.”

Next to a cabinet containing a set of genitals was the notice: ‘The testes are roughly the size of walnuts.’ Now this is the sort of accessible science I like.

As is often the case with these things, the Bishop’s words are likely draw even more crowds to this exhibition which, for all the hoo-haa, is less about sensationalism and more about science.

Yes, the bodies are shown in poses which some might consider disrespectful: the first thing you see are two people – albeit skinless - playing football. Later there will be a trio playing cards, one running a relay and another rocking out on the guitar. But it doesn’t feel shocking, possibly because the bodies (all of which were donated by the previous owners) don’t seem like very much like real dead bodies.

Having been treated by Hagens’ famous (and very lucrative) plastination process (where fluids and fats are extracted, mixed with plastics and resins, and replaced) the specimens have a shiny, colourful look, and you have to keep reminding yourself that they were once real live human beings with wives and kids and jobs to go to. And, more crucially, that this remarkable arrangement of sinew, muscle, organs and bone in front of you is what is going on under your skin right now.

That’s the real point of this exhibition: to make people more aware, and more respectful, of their bodies. Talking at a press conference the day before the opening, it was clear that von Hagens is a boffin who loves anatomy and is passionate about anything which will help him, and the rest of us, understand it better.

Inspired by the Renaissance approach to anatomy, he’s found a way of making the stripped down, opened out human body popular, which, given we’ve all got one, seems a ridiculous thing to need to do. But what occurs whilst walking round this exhibition – looking at a spinal cord, a slice of mammory gland, a complex network of blood vessels - is how little attention we pay to the miraculous mechanics going on inside us.

I can imagine anyone with an illness or, say, a cigarette addiction, making a bee-line for a particular organ, and there are plenty to look at. As well as the large, full-body exhibits there are cabinets containing kidneys, livers, hearts, prostates and gall bladders in varying stages of health. I spotted a shrunken kidney. A healthy heart. A length of intestine (which really is remarkably long). Next to a cabinet containing a set of genitals was the notice: ‘The testes are roughly the size of walnuts.’ Now this is the sort of accessible science I like.

At the press conference, several of the gathered journalists admitted to skipping breakfast in case the spectacle of human bodies make them queasy. As it was, there was no need. Body Worlds 4 is fascinating and in a way, beautiful, but I didn’t find it disturbing, at least not until I found a room containing foetuses ranging from five weeks to eight months. Yet even then the sadness of seeing these lives cut short was tempered somehow by the presentation of the bodies, by the circumstance in which they are seen, and by a feeling that pervaded this exhibition: that life is what our amazing bodies allow us to have, but our bodies are not ourselves, there is something else which makes us real. Call it a soul, if you will.

Others might disagree and the exhibition will raise a lot of discussions along these lines, from aspects of health and preventative care to questions of philosophy and religion, age-old issues which are acknowledged in the quotes from a host of thinkers and scientists on the exhibition walls.

But you’ll have to make your own mind up about Hagens and his projects. I first encountered the Doctor on his Channel 4 programme where he explained the difference between malignant and benign cancers using a doll’s house, a plastic bag and some squirty foam. Disturbing, yes. Sensationalist? Possibly. But I had never previously understood cancer and I do now.

If I had something wrong with me, I’d like to go to Gunther and have him explain it, with one of his plastinated bodies or with a potato, a scrunchie and a length of garden hose if needs be. With his gift for bringing anatomy to the masses, you know he’d do a sterling job.

Body Worlds 4, until June 29, tickets weekend/weekdays £10/£11.50 adults, £7/£8.50 children. Museum of Science & Industry, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4FP. Tel: 0161 832 2244 www.mosi.org.uk

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

EFebruary 21st 2008.

I think people got to remember is that, yes its 10 pounds to get in. Yes they are formed from a real human body. Yes they are gory, and yes they aren't very detailed in information, but have a think about the venue. It was simply not big enough to exhibit everything.This is only part of his work. He has also previously exhibit abroad and the venues are alot bigger and can exhibit more. This is his work, his life, his invension. He makes a living out of that.They are so simple in the information, not because they are lazy and saving money. Its only because the venue is small. If you want more information, why don't you just go to a medical school. Then you will get all the information you want.Also if you don't want to pay at all, just might as well go to the library and get some books out and read them. Why bother even going to exhibitions like this?Exhibition is not just for education, its also there for leisure. Why do people forget that! If children are present, they will always be with adults and those adults have the responsiblity to teach them. Otherwise why take them there to the first place!If 40 pounds for a family ticket is expensive, why do people willing to pay for a concert ticket for like 35 pounds for one person and not 4 and don't think they are expensive. That is very interesting!At least give some credit for those who did the exhibition and the person who made this exhibition, otherwise after Leonardo DiVinci, there won't be another person who can do that. Think about Gunther von Hagens as Leonardo DiVinci, then things might seem to be more clear on why he did this!

No BodiesFebruary 21st 2008.

I agree these exhibits are in poor taste and possible illegal. There is a proposed congressional probe in the US concerning these types of exhibits.

mmFebruary 21st 2008.

I think he's a freak, he gives me the creeps, theres no need whatsoever to use human bodies like this. We all know what a man looks like stood with a guitar or heading a ball, do we really need to see what they look like with no skin? Its nothing but a circus & the man looks like a serial killer!

Gillian FFebruary 21st 2008.

Get over it. It's a body, they've consented, realise the educational value of this. This exhibition is fascinating, enlightening and provides non-medical people with an opportunity to see and understand about our bodies. Leonardo Da Vinci and so many others have had such small minded reactionary views to contend with, come on we're in the 21st Century now, some of the world has moved on. Go and see it, you will be amazed.

JomovFebruary 21st 2008.

Looks fascinating, will be going very soon I hope!

jhovianFebruary 21st 2008.

I saw one of these exhibitions a couple of years back in Amsterdam and found it fascinating. It was great to see what goes on beneath the skin through everyday activity. I'm not too sure about peoples objections to them - are they similarly disgusted by human skeletons that have been in school laboratories for years? Or is there a fundamental difference in preserving and exhibiting soft tissues and bones?

Disgusted of FallowfieldFebruary 21st 2008.

Saw this at the weekend and not seen anything quite so sick and disturbing in my life. What is a respectable museum like this doing in the company of a greedy , self-absorbed pervert? This is a real shame as the exhibits here are usually super.

wayneFebruary 21st 2008.

This is an astonishing celebration of the human form, worth a visit in every way. It's not grotesque or horrible and should be experienced before condemned. Try it though and you probably won't condemn it.

DrakeFebruary 21st 2008.

When Lindow Man returns, it'll be surrounded by 'interpretation' written by modern pagans as if this even-more-made-up-than-the-rest-of-them religion has ANYTHING to do with the religion of LM himself. Anything for publicity...At least Bodyworlds has some thoughtful interpretation, and is blatant in its desire to attract attention.

mmFebruary 21st 2008.

Grow up? do you want to elaborate?

hellohaFebruary 21st 2008.

I think mm should not be allowed to write stuff that other people can see - 'freek' surely this is a term that (was) banned at primary school, and never to return, if you don’t like the idea of the exhibition- then don’t go!- but when Lindow Man returns to Manchester, hopefully, your opinion of exhibited human remains will change?...

melFebruary 21st 2008.

Fantastic! The human body is fascinating! We can all learn so much. I can't wait to go this weekend.

katrinaFebruary 21st 2008.

OK...first things first...hagens making a packet from this. I dont mind paying a tenner to see and learn some good things. I didnt learn much. He copied his website material and stuck it on big boards. He gave the names of different anatomical structures and little paragraphs about tit bits here and there....most of it anybody with any scientific knowledge gained at school would already know. The only thing that this exhibit has on others is that the things you are looking at were once alive. Therefore he is playing on the fact that people deep down like a bit of gore. Family tickets around £40. This is an outrage. I dont have a family yet but it annoys the hell out of me that he can get away with this. Yes this technique is unique and a major advance on previous attempts to preserve tissues. Yes they are preserved in such a way you can get up close and see good detail of the human anatomy. However I remain skeptical about some of the items in his exhibits. Things look created rather than preserved. He states 'BODY WORLDS 4 is a study of the anatomy of humans and aims to be educational, informative and thought-provoking'.... its not educational...the language used isnt child friendly and any adult would already know what they were looking at. He doesnt go into any sort of real detail about anything....its thought provoking in the way that it gets you asking questions but leaves you frustrated because for your ten pounds they havent even been bothered to give any details. Just an example, 'plastinated enlarged polycystic kidney'...wow great..tell me more...nope!!!The plastination process is paintented so obviously the ins and outs cant be given at great length..but all the fuss makes you think that the exhibit will at least expand on the websites and things we already know about this fascinating process..i did pay after all. You'll read the same thing everywhere, 'Plastination is the process of extracting all bodily fluids and soluble fat from specimens and replacing them with vacuum forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastometers, such as rubber, silicon and epoxy. The specimen is then cured with light, heat or certain gases, which give it rigidity and permanence' which sounds great..but thats all you get. Seriously..check out the website..its enough..thats all your gonna get at the exhibit...keep your money. I mean this would be great if kids went in free and adults payed say a fiver....just daylight robbery.

EveFebruary 21st 2008.

This exhibition is fascinating! I will recommend anyone who is interested in the human anatomy to go and see it. Its so detailed and shows you exactly what it is that make up your body. Its amazing!It might even interest you to explore more in the area!

MancunianFebruary 21st 2008.

A wonderful and fascinating exhibition and this very well written article echoes my sentiments.As he did in his TV series, von Hagens aims to educate us by allowing us to see the very thing we are learning. I dont believe his intentions are to shock. The recreation of cancer using plastic foam and a dolls house is an example of his genuine passion to illustrate biological issues clearer than we have ever seen them.The media may sensationalise von Hagens but I dont believe he attempts to sensationalise himself.

John WareFebruary 21st 2008.

Von Hagens puts the "theatre" back into "Operating Theatre".

KatrinaFebruary 21st 2008.

E i can see you point of view totally....and some I agree with..the venue was tiny. He has already made a fortune from this so why did he not put more into his exhibit. Why did he use a tiny space? Why did he use a science and industry museum....it should have gone into an art gallery. Yes its an art form...I wanted science and I didnt get it...it didnt do what it said on the tin...I was dissapointed. I dont see how concerts have anything to do with this. I am not all for paying £40 to watch a concert however I will and if I get £40 worth out of it then great. As a nation we pay too much for everything. I just think that when it comes to education and families more thought should have gone into either the exhibit or advertising to make it clear what you were getting.

ChrisFebruary 21st 2008.

grow up mm

shaFebruary 21st 2008.

Go and see it before you judge. This is excellent

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