I was fortunate enough to be able to see Gunther Von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibit in September 2010, when they did a stopover at the Telus World of Science Centre in Vancouver. Not being a medical student didn’t put me off the thought of looking at plastinated cadavers. I did have to do quite a bit of convincing with my fiancé, though. It’s amazing how people who have no problems watching horror movies can’t stomach the sight of the real thing.
Although, having said that, I did read a fair number of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul horror novels before I hit my early teens, and never had any problems with the gory subject matter. However, I was squeamish around horror movies for a long time. Oddly enough, I was (am) comfortable with surgeries, 200-lb tumours, and childbirths. Go figure.
Scientific curiosity and the educative component were my two motivations for going. Not the opportunity to gawk or giggle at what might be considered macabre; no, I was raised with a healthy respect for the human body. The singular experience of having a real skeleton of a previously living woman in first-year university biology was not enough. Not to mention that this Body Worlds exhibit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I was disappointed that cameras weren’t allowed, though. Maybe that’s why we spent close to four hours going over all the displays; our brains and memories would have to be the recording devices. What I was surprised to see was the number of displays, the poses, and the range of subjects. One stunning display showed a cadaverous rider on the back of his equally cadaverous steed. Another showed a couple of cadavers playing basketball. Male and female cadavers were figure skating in pairs. Young (post-teen) male cadavers were playing catch. One standing male cadaver was sliced sagittally several times so that there were many angles from which to see him. A glassed-in comparative display of two supine cadavers–one healthy, and the other obese–showed several inches of yellow fat encircling the latter like a full body halo, and pushing into the spaces between every organ. The detail of the plastination–with its striations of musculature, convolutions of brain, structure of bone, and texture of organs–is so breathtakingly perfect that I found myself wondering several times if the cadavers weren’t all originally living flesh.
Almost all the cadavers were adults. Yet there were exceptions: one particular display that I remember vividly showed a heavily pregnant woman with her abdomen partially cut away to show a near-term fetus in her womb, and the cancerous damage to her blackened lungs (that killed her and her unborn child) as a result of her severe nicotine addition. More displays showed fertilized human ovum in various stages of development. These displays were quite sad to see, and people spoke in whispers when they entered this room. These particular displays were probably the ones that incited the most religious controversy.
Although the theme of the exhibit was the brain (a remarkable display showed blood vessels as bright blue and red threads running up and down the shape of a non-existent brain), there was much more. The lungs of (pink) nonsmokers, (dark grey and shriveled) smokers, and (black as pitch) coal miners were also displayed. In fact, I learned that some real-life smokers at other Body World exhibits, having seen what their lungs looked like, actually tossed away their packs of smokes after exiting the exhibition. Another display showed healthy and cirrhotic livers, with the latter scarred and shriveled from years of alcoholic abuse.
I came away from this exhibit with an even healthier respect for the human body. I hope some smokers and drinkers did, too.