When Dr Gunther von Hagens performed a live autopsy on Channel 4, in 2002, the first one in 170 years, the controversial German doctor created quite a buzz. His plastinated bodies created even more of a sensation for the exhibition Body Worlds a few months later, in an East London gallery.
The exhibits have been shown in 130 cities around the works and more than 47 million people have gazed at von Hagens’ human figures, and displays of dissected internal organs. Now they have a new long-term home at Body Worlds, in the iconic London Pavilion in the heart of Piccadilly. So, what should you expect, what can you learn – and who’s it for?
Von Hagens displays flayed corpses and plastinated internal organs, giving us a unique insight (literally) into the human body. The German anatomist actually invented the plastination technique – the process of preserving cells by replacing fat and water with advanced plastics. The process has also played an essential part in medical science, in the fields of education and research.
Within the vast 28,000sq feet of space here, the 200 exhibits are split over four levels and are themed into sections including cardiovascular, respiratory, locomotive and reproductive. The displays, either entire bodies with the skin peeled away to reveal muscles, or sections of organ in glass cases, were often accompanied by information panels and illustrations to put the entire human body, and ways in which we can be more healthy, into more perspective.
One of the most striking exhibits is the Tennis Player – which looks at first glance like three men playing tennis; only closer inspection you can see that this is the same man (you can see by the figure’s right foot) – revealing his skeleton, internal organs and muscles, in three ways.
The exhibition’s interactive features are appealing especially for children, such as the anatomy mirror, where you walk slowly towards a screen that then superimposes your bones, then internal organs, onto your figure. Next to the Lifesaver model, an information panel describing how to performing CPR comes alongside a model of a torso for you to try it yourself.
For all that this collection of figures make a striking collection, the intended underlying message is one of how to stay healthy – whether through its sections of a lung comparing a healthy one to another with lung cancer, or to the capillaries covering the brain, and explaining how to help prevent dementia. It certainly gives plenty of food for thought — most visitors leave determined to live a more healthy life!