Corpses come alive at California Science Center Exhibition

A nine-foot giant is among the first things that greet you as you step inside the Body Worlds exhibit in the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The giant is in fact a “plastinated” human — with all its organs, bones and muscles exposed — that expands the cadaver to inhuman size. This is among the exhibit’s 200 featured authentic human specimens, including 25 fully assembled plastinated bodies, individual organs and body slices.

Gunther Von Hagens, the creator of plastination, has successfully showed more than 15 million people the complex workings of our bodies, making this the most successful touring exhibition worldwide. In addition, the exhibit has become one of the most popular at the California Science Center, attracting more than 300,000 guests since its opening in July. The huge number of visitors demonstrates the desire of the general public to learn more about the structure and functions of human bodies. Invented by Von Hagens at the Institute for Anatomy in Heidelberg, Germany in 1978, plastination is a very unique preservation process, created originally for medical education. The process replaces the natural fluids and fats in the body with reactive polymers such as silicone rubber or polyester, which are initially moldable to allow the positioning of the bodies into their life-like poses. Plastinated organs and body slices have gained popularity as teaching and research aids in many medical institutions. In addition, plastination preserves the structure of the vessels and organs down to the microscopic level, allowing them to be used for surgical preparation and pathological analysis.

The fully assembled plastinates at the exhibit include a soccer player’s body, split open down the middle to reveal inner organs and muscles, and posed in mid action with one hand catching the ball and the other holding his lungs, charred from smoking.

The multitude of plastinates reveal the inner workings of the body’s various systems. The fully assembled plastinated humans are posed in a variety of life-like poses: bicycling, running, sitting, walking and even a skateboarder doing a handstand on his board. Each of these models highlights how the specific systems interact with one another in addition to demonstrating the effects of healthy and nonhealthy habits on the body, which is one of the aims of the exhibit.

Until recently, the complexity of the human body — the cardiovascular system, the brain, bone structure, nervous system, etc. — was known only by medical students and physicians. The general public was allowed a basic view of their own bodies from skeletons and illustrations in encyclopedias, yet these gave only a simplified picture. Body Worlds presents those who come with profound insight into the structure and function of healthy and unhealthy bodies. The exhibit allows visitors to see the interconnectedness of muscles, organs and vascular systems to a degree that has never before been possible. The whole-body specimens highlight various anatomical components that are made visible through cut-away components. In effect, the body is dissected in a way that allows the viewing of many of the organs and systems that are normally hidden behind muscle and bone structures.

The exhibit is divided into five sections, allowing visitors to see anatomy in a logical and fascinating way — which some compare to a three-dimensional textbook. It starts with the skeletal system followed by the locomotive system, the digestive system, the nerve and vessel systems, and ends with prenatal development. The exhibit provides insight into not only the structure of the body, but also the spatial relationships between organs and various systems by themselves. One of the most fascinating models is a human figure composed only of blood vessels, showing the complexity of the vascular system. Diseased and healthy organ specimens display hearts of patients that suffered infarcts, artificial joints and lungs blackened by nicotine. The Science Center believes that the exhibit inspires new respect for the body and its incredible intracacy, while powerfully dispelling ignorance of how our lifestyle choices affect our bodies.

UCSD’s pre-med fraternity Phi Delta Epsilon joined UCLA’s chapter on a visit to the Body Worlds exhibit. “I’m glad I saw it as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Revelle College junior Deborah Dossick said. “It changes the way you look at the human body; after the exhibit, I see it as very mechanistic.” She explained that the exhibit made her aware of possible lifestyle choices. “I will never smoke,” she said. “The lung with cancer was probably the thing that made the greatest impact.”

Although the exhibit features cadavers, it is presented in an artistic fashion. The creation of a plastinated body is a very scientific process, yet the display requires the mindset of a sculptor who can envision his or her finished product from a slab of marble. The positioning is guided by both aesthetic and anatomical concerns to create the most realistic pose and educational consideration. The plastinated model of the chess player highlights the scientific aspect of the anatomy by focusing on the nervous system. However, the posture, which shows a person deep in thought, shows the artistic detail that is given to the models. Such nuances in the models create an impression of artistry.

“It is hard to appreciate the artistry behind the exhibit,” Dossick said. “The human development section was the hardest to handle and really made you aware these are real people on display.”

In addition, the exhibit is not set up like a regular exhibit with blank white walls and severe lighting focused on the specimens. The walls instead are covered with appropriate quotes from philosophers and anatomical drawings from the 16th century.