The exhibit features real human bodies and organs preserved by a process called “plastination.” Body Worlds offers visitors a unique look into the physical structures underneath their skin.
“Body Worlds is firmly set in the tradition of Renaissance anatomy,” says Dr. Angelina Whalley, creative director of Body Worlds and director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany. “We wish to show the beauty of the body interior and its intricacy,” she says.
Whalley works with her husband, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, Body Worlds creator and the inventor of the plastination process, to create an overall theme for each exhibit. The Denver exhibition’s theme is The Story of the Heart.
“In all societies around the world, the heart was regarded as a special organ, the seat of our soul and compassion,” she says. “The cardiovascular system is woven throughout the entire exhibition.”
Organs and cross-sections of specimens make up the bulk of the exhibition. The most stunning parts of the exhibit feature full-size human bodies posed to enhance musculature and showcase different parts of the body. Two displays call to mind the recent Winter Olympics: a male and female pair performing a figure skating lift and two male hockey players jostling for the puck. The hockey display is the newest for Body Worlds, having been finished in December 2009.
The bodies lack identifying features, which provides privacy for the donor and allows all visitors to identify with the figures.
“The deepest and most powerful part of this exhibit is its universal appeal,” says Dr. Bridget Coughlin, vice president of strategic partnerships and programs and curator of human health at the DMNS.
“Regardless of your age, your sex, your zip code or your religious background, it’s about you,” Coughlin says.
“Everyone has a human body, and everyone should learn more about it.”
Both Whalley and Coughlin emphasizes the educational aspect of Body Worlds. The exhibit features crosssections of an obese person, hearts with defects and the lungs of a long-time smoker with emphysema.
“It helps the community become more health-literate,” says Coughlin.
After leaving the exhibit, Whalley explains, “People really understand what an unhealthy lifestyle does to the body.”
Education isn’t the only aim of the Body Worlds exhibit.
“Our goal is to make the specimen as beautiful as possible,” Whalley says.
“That is definitely the strategy behind it,” she says, “to be educating but at the same time showing the beauty of the body. We make people think ‘Wow, this is me.’” All specimens in the exhibit were donated by those who voluntarily left their remains to the Institute of Plastination.
The only exception to this rule of voluntary donation is the section on human development, which features fetuses from university and hospital collections dating back to the early 20th century.
“We are very thankful to those hospitals and universities to donate these collections to us so we can preserve this anatomical heritage,” Whalley says.
Von Hagens started the body donation program back in 1983.
“We have currently 10,000 volunteers in our files, and about 1,000 of those originate from the U.S.,” said Whalley.
Forty-two donors hail from Colorado — nine from Denver.
“We select certain kinds of specimens by body condition for fullbody specimens,” Whalley says. “There are also ways and tricks to make the body look more flexible.”
The plastination process takes about one year for a full-body specimen.
“We work around 1,500 pure working hours on a single body,” Whalley says, adding that some specimens have taken upwards of 3,000 hours of work.
The most intricate part of the process is the anatomical dissection.
Dissections are done by hand, at both the Institute of Plastination and at Von Hagens’ Dalian Plastination Ltd., in Dalian, China.
After dissection, the specimen is placed into acetone for a month. Then the specimen is placed in a vacuum, where the body is impregnated with a polymer and the acetone is sucked out. The specimen remains here for four to six weeks. The result is a flexible specimen that is then posed before being cured into its permanent position.
“The posing is very intricate work because it does not only require good anatomical knowledge but it also requires artistic view to make the specimen look beautiful and natural,” Whalley says.
Body Worlds seeks not only to educate people about the human body, but to inspire them as well.
“My wish for Body Worlds here in Denver is to inspire people … on a physical, emotional, even on a philosophical level,” Whalley says. “And I hope the visitor will leave the exhibit with an idea of living with inspiration.”
On the Bill
Body Worlds and The Story of the Heart runs through July 18 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, 303-370-6000. Tickets cost $25.50 and are available online at www.dmns.org