Gunther von Hagens' controversial Body Worlds exhibit unveils the anatomy and inquisitive nature of the human being
The fuss was not unexpected: Thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans lined up this past weekend to check out the hugely controversial Body Worlds 2 exhibit of plastinated human cadavers at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry before the exhibit left for Montreal for a summer-long run that begins next week.
There were so many Chicagoans in line, the MSI stayed open 24 hours a day Friday through Sunday.
As the lineups grew, an astonished American Medical Association panel at Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine denounced the exhibit.
"If you really want to learn [about human anatomy], you’re not going to learn by Body Worlds," Pritzker professor Dr. Peter Angelos intoned.
But Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the creator of Body Worlds, is having none of that.
"There used to be anatomical theatres all over Europe and America," von Hagens, 62, told Hour in an exclusive interview from his Body Worlds Institute for Plastination head office in Heidelberg. "But they have been taken away from the people. I am giving it back to the people."
Indeed, over 20 million people have seen one of von Hagens’ three Body Worlds exhibits currently touring the planet, and another 500,000 people are expected to view Body Worlds 2 at the Montreal Science Centre in the Quays of the Old Port this summer.
The exhibit will feature over 200 objects, including whole-body plastinates.
Von Hagens invented plastination in 1977. To stop decomposition, the process extracts all bodily fluids and soluble fat from anatomical specimens and replaces them with vacuum-forced silicon rubber and epoxy that are then hardened with gas, light and heat curing, giving the cadavers rigidity and permanence.
Von Hagens never gives interviews to journalists before they’ve seen the exhibit. But he made an exception for Hour.
BEAUTY IS MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
Von Hagens’ pursuit of science was marked by his attempt to escape to the West – born in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1945, he attempted to escape communism by crossing the Czechoslovakian border into Austria in January 1969. He was caught and extradited to East Germany where he was imprisoned for two years. His freedom was purchased by West Germany in 1970.
Hour How did prison help you later in life as a scientist?
Dr. Gunther von Hagens I learnt the impossible or unthinkable is possible. Before my capture I did not know about the sale of political prisoners. I also learnt you don’t play around with your one-time chances: A Czech guard gave me the chance to escape through an open window. I did not take my life into my own hands and it cost me two years in prison. The lesson? Take chances and never avoid controversy.
Hour What do you make of religious leaders who charge you with blaspheming what they consider to be the "sacred" human body?
Von Hagens I act in the long tradition of Christianity: I show [plastinated cadavers] for enlightenment and reason. Jesus on the cross proves that in Christianity the corpse is the centre of the religion and this is unique to all religions.
Hour Lutheran Bishop Ulrich Fischer wrote of your work, "When death goes on display, human beings have no chance of retaining their human dignity."
Von Hagens My work dignifies the human body because [body donors] work in self-determination as they cross the barrier to death.
Hour You offered to perform plastination on Pope John Paul II. What happened?
Von Hagens There were bishops in the news who wanted to preserve his heart. So I contacted the relevant authorities – whom I cannot name – but Pope John Paul II himself decided not to be preserved.
Hour Do you envision a day when we will have plastinated cadavers of historical figures or celebrities, and identify them?
Von Hagens Taking what we have done with the human body in the past, this will likely happen long after I am myself plastinated. This will not happen as skin-covered figures. This way the plastinated celebrities will represent everyone’s beauty. In life they stand up for themselves, in death they will represent us all. We are all Madonna.
Hour What is your definition of physical beauty?
Von Hagens In life, good-looking people earn more than average-looking people who earn more than bad-looking people. This leads to social inequity and causes problems. But physical beauty loses those negative social implications after death because beauty rests only on outer human forms.
Hour People stand and stare at your plastinated cadavers for hours. What is the root of our fascination?
Von Hagens The mind-boggling confrontation with the unknown form of your body beneath your skin. Plastinates illuminate their own reality. Our mortality is felt.
Hour Do you think fake reproductions of dissected cadavers would have the same impact on audiences as real plastinated cadavers?
Von Hagens Definitely not. The awareness factor is rooted in the real. It takes us to another conscious level. It brings up more adrenaline and affects our memory deeper because it is real in a modern society where we constantly work with fakes, pictures and images.
Hour How does Body Worlds teach?
Von Hagens I’ve seen 30, 35 of the 100 [anatomical] exhibitions worldwide and no other exhibition gives instructive labelling, or compares healthy and diseased organs. These are tools to help enlighten people, like when they see the [plastinated] lungs of a smoker. It can change them.
Hour Do you create plastinated cadavers differently for universities and hospitals versus your touring Body Worlds exhibits?
Von Hagens The [plastinates] I manufacture for universities and hospitals are not emotional, or are less emotional. And I repeat them. Whereas with Body Worlds I never repeat a plastinate. I [also] plastinate [them] at a higher level so that it becomes a piece of art that has the power to generate pride in our bodies. I am an anatomist when it comes to hospitals and I am an anatomist who embraces art when it comes to exhibitions.
Hour Germany is the country that has had the most problems accepting plastination and your exhibits. Why do you think Germans find your work distasteful, compared to, say, Canadians?
Von Hagens You’re a very good analyzer. It has to do with the historic guilt of the Nazi atrocities. In Germany, when it comes to the body, everything is emotional, from stem cell research to euthanasia to Body Worlds. In this way it is not wrong that Germans don’t like it – they must be careful. By being a plastinator and a German, I am [also] more inclined and challenged to set proper ethical standards in the field.
Hour In 2003, you sparked outrage by conducting an autopsy on the body of a 72-year-old man in front of a paying audience on British TV. But public dissections were popular in the 16th century, with temporary anatomical theatres constructed in London. So why are you being picked on? Do you feel like you’re being made into a kind of scapegoat for a voyeuristic society?
Von Hagens I conducted that autopsy to democratize the anatomy, to show how the dissection is done. I was proud to continue this tradition and for that reason I plastinated this man afterwards. I am a lightning rod for the people and their bodies after death. [At Body Worlds] people can see their bodies after death. It’s not so much about what happens to our soul in heaven or hell, but what happens to our body?
Body Worlds 2
At the Montreal Science Centre (333 De la Commune W.), May 10 to September 16
Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult