Entering the Body Worlds exhibit is not as creepy as you may have feared. In fact, you have to keep reminding yourself that what you're seeing was once a living human being and not a plastic replica.
You see human bodies stripped of clothing, hair and skin. The figures are posed to expose their muscles, nerves and organs.
The exhibit is possible by using a technique called plastination. It was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens a German scientist. The process replaces water and fat in the bodies with fluid plastics that harden. This allows the bodies to be fixed in poses and to be seen in three dimensions. Dr. von Hagens, dressed in a black leather vest and his trademark black fedora hat, is in St. Paul for Body Worlds.
Von Hagens says, "on the average one body takes about 1,500 working hours. It takes about one year. One to two years."
He says about 350 workers worldwide help him prepare the donated bodies. He says the exhibit stresses a respect for the human form and has a memorial to the unnamed people who donated their bodies for this medical display.
"And those bodies are posed in lifelike positions. To avoid a ghoulish feeling. To close the gap between death and life. This is the message of Body Worlds," according to von Hagen.
The Body Worlds exhibit was first mounted in Japan in 1995. It was incredibly popular and since then about 20 million people have seen it. It came to North America in 2004 for shows in Los Angeles and Chicago. Science Museum President, Dr. Eric Jolly, saw Body Worlds in Chicago says he's "thrilled" it's in St. Paul.
"This is an astounding exhibit, unlike anything I'd ever seen before. When I first saw this in Chicago I was struck by how inspiring it is for my own health care. How it could bring others to have aspirations to work in health and allied health fields. And how awesome the human body is in its architecture."
There is a pre-natal section of Body Worlds. It's curtained off and visitors can easily pass by if they don't wish to view it. Human fetuses in various stages of development are displayed. A pregnant woman who was killed in an accident is shown; her muscles are visible as is the fetus she was carrying.
Body Worlds includes many glass cases filled with preserved human organs. Visitors can see the clean lungs of a non-smoker and compare them with the blacked lungs of a smoker. They can also view a healthy liver next to the damaged organ of a drinker. Hearts with pacemakers and broken bones with embedded hardware help visitors see the connection between technology and the body.
Mike Day, a Science Museum of Minnesota senior vice president, is expecting about 400,000 people will visit Body Worlds. He's seen it five times in various cities and says he's amazed at people's reactions.
"The view that you have of human bodies in this show is a view that only doctors or medical students have had before. You watch people move through this exhibit and they are very reverent about it. You can tell they are showing a great deal of respect for those who have donated their bodies for this exhibit. I'm not speaking in hyperbole when I say this is a once in a lifetime experience," Day said.
Dr. Gunther von Hagens says he knows Body Worlds is seen by some as controversial. He calls it "anatomy art" and says most people find it uplifting. But he admits some of the media coverage has been critical. Von Hagens says there was also an incident when Body Worlds was on display in 2003 in London.
"In England one person hit a specimen and tumbled it down. One person attacked a plastinate out of 20 million," he said.
Science Museum officials say they've consulted with religious leaders and experts in medical ethics to make sure the exhibit is done with respect.
Dr. Von Hagens says 6,800 people have donated their bodies to his research; including 200 Americans. The bodies on display are anonymous and there is almost no specific information about how they died. Dr. von Hagens calls these people his "partners" and says one day he plans to join them and have his body undergo plastination.