Dr von Hagens (c) www.bodyworlds.com
Body and soul
by Richard Turner
The latest incarnation of BODY WORLDS, the original exhibition of real human bodies, makes its world premiere at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. To find out more, we spoke to its enigmatic creator, Dr Gunther von Hagens.
Since inventing the science of plastination in 1977, Dr Gunther von Hagens has developed this groundbreaking technique to preserve human tissue into a unique art/science exhibition seen by 25 million people around the world.
Basketball player (c) www.bodyworlds.com
What they all want to see are real dead bodies - in minute detail. Now, his most technically refined collection of dissected human specimens is coming to Manchester (22 Feb 2008) to give an insight into the beauty and complexity of the human form.
But who is this intriguing German anatomist? And what really goes on under that trademark black fedora? To get under the skin of the exhibition, we asked Dr von Hagens to reflect on faith, death and his dream of immortality:
Why choose Manchester to premiere BODY WORLDS 4?
"Well, the University of Manchester’s anatomy department started plastination 25 years ago. So I knew Manchester quite well, I knew the people, it is a city which is technologically advanced, it’s modern - the Mark 1 computer was invented there. Many decisions in your life depend on your feelings and I thought emotionally: why not choose the town I like most in Britain after London?"
So what can visitors expect?
"BODY WORLDS 4 is the most recent exhibition which, compared to BODY WORLDS I to III is technologically advanced. The plastinates are lifelike, the dissected human bodies are more shown in action, the faces are more expressive, more individual, the dissection is even more detailed than before."
Does the exhibition address the taboo of death?
"I know there is a deep interest in human bodies otherwise 25 million people up to now would not have come to see BODY WORLDS. So, I satisfy an ever increasing demand of people to look at what is beneath our skin. I think the human nature has a strong interest in our own bodies. We have this interest as a child but as we are educated in our society not to explore our bodies almost as if our body is something dirty."
So you think it’s making a positive contribution…
"I want to bring to the people what they never can see, the wonders of biology inside themselves. By looking at anonymous specimens, they are looking at a mirror of themselves. Also, it has been proven in surveys that visitors are more inclined towards organ donation which, in London, saw a 30% increase after seeing the exhibition."
Human head (c) www.bodyworlds.com
What is the typical reaction of people to the exhibition?
"They are astonished and cannot believe how intricate and how interesting our anatomy is, even down to the microscopic level. In traditional anatomical museums we only see organs pickled. When you cut a human body in parts and put them in glass jars in formaldehyde, the colour is faded. So what is more dignifying - to do that or to keep the body whole and show it in all its intricacy and colour? In this way, body slices can look as beautiful as church windows."
What are the ethical considerations of using dead bodies?
"The most important one is that I use exclusively donated bodies, donated with informed consent. I believe the 500 body donors that I have so far are the backbone of plastination and of what I am doing."
Why do you want to share your science with the public?
"During my time as a medical student at Heidelberg University, I guided people through the anatomy museum. And I realised there was this big desire to know more about the human body. So when I invented, more by accident, this technique of plastination, I realised the big emotional attachment of the viewer and it had this effect on me. I remember a girl from Japan who was in tears and told me that she had attempted suicide several times but after seeing how beautiful we are she would never do it again."
Is plastination art or science?
"When it comes to masterpieces of anatomy, I realise that each specimen endures my life for hundreds years to come, so I have to give my signature to it. I could work for 200 hours on it, or a single hour. So what I’m doing now, is more lifelike, more colourful, more detailed. So plastination becomes a kind of anatomy art, unveiling the beauty beneath the skin frozen in time, between death and decay. And the most aesthetic one, compared to the skeletons and mummies that we know so far. In this way, it gives people another choice: to go to the earth, to go the flames, or to go to the museum."
What does Bodyworlds have to say on the Creationism v Evolution debate?
"One strength of BODY WORLDS is that it is open to any interpretation. In the United States, BODY WORLDS was taken as evidence of creationism. On the other hand, when a biology teacher looks at the rearing horse with rider and compares the human brain and the horse’s brain and notes how similar we are beneath our skin and fur, then this is evidence of the power of evolution. It’s the same with abortion argument."
And your own position..?
"Well, of course I’m a scientist but, you know, generally I’m an inventor. was so often wrong in my life that I rather now think in likelihoods. I see the possibility for creation, but I also realise the power of evolution."
Will you ever be an exhibit in your own exhibition?
"Of course! I donated my body 20 years ago. To make your body immortal for didactic eternity, what could be better?"
Complete with your trademark hat, I hope…
"My wife wants to put me in the entrance of the exhibition, greeting the visitors. So maybe one day you can look forward to that!"
BODY WORLDS 4 opens at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Manchester on 22 February 2007. For details, go to www.mosi.org.uk or www.bodyworlds.com
last updated: 28/03/2008 at 10:53