Body Worlds Vital is a “must see”

In Lifestyle on June 29, 2011 at 11:24 am

For some weeks, Mrs. Phyne Dyner had been pestering me to take her to the Science Center of Iowa to see Gunther von Hagens’: “Body Worlds Vital”.

I was really not surprised that she was interested in seeing the anatomical exhibition.  She has a history of pouring, wide eyed, over the anatomy and surgery texts in my library.

Not out of morbid curiosity.  She has a genuine interest in the stuff under our skin.

For my part, I thought the exhibition would be mildly interesting, and possessing of a healthy dose of P.T. Barnum.

I poked around the Internet to see what von Hagens was about.

Okay, he is a bit of an odd duck.  But one has to be a bit of an odd duck to compulsively turn the flesh of virtually every living thing into plastic so people can look at how it is put together and see how it works.  Von Hagens has preserved specimens of huge animals, such as bears and giraffes, as well as human beings.

“I vonder iff I kan do a skvid?” I pictured von Hagens musing in his lab.

He has done one.  Camels too!

So we piled into the Jew Canoe and off to the exhibit we went.

WARNING:  Gushing imminent!

The exhibit is, well, most awesome.

Von Hagens has been turning flesh into plastic since 1977.  The specimens displayed are bodies of real human beings who volunteered to be part of the Body Worlds show.  A completed donation form is part of the exhibit and there is a mechanism for visitors to contact von Hagens if they wish to consider “plastination” as their final disposition.

Mrs. Phyne Dyner ambled around the exhibit excitedly and I have to admit that I was pretty enthused, once I started looking at the various displays.


First, the tissues are amazingly well preserved.  Real anatomical specimens, temporarily preserved with formaldehyde, take on a jerky-like appearance after just a few weeks.  The anatomical structures in these specimens looked moist and fresh.

Second, the quality of dissection was beyond impressive.  Von Hagens employs a small army of skilled anatomists in his lab and their work is meticulous.  Tiny nerves and blood vessels have been carefully dissected into view and their anatomical relationships to other tissues has been stunningly fixed in place.

Third, this is classical anatomical display at its best.  For a point of reference, look up some anatomy drawings from about at least two hundred years ago.  Anatomists, during the classical period, commonly set the dissected person in familiar poses, rather than supine on a table.  Von Hagens displays his specimens similarly.  A swordsman leans gracefully into his blade and a dancing couple twirl in a perpetual ballet.  And, like classical anatomists, von Hagens reflects (folds back) layers of muscles so the observer can see what lies beneath.  The display is an absolutely beautiful blending of science and art.

Despite the deliberate posing of these bodies, the exhibit has a very dignified and respectful atmosphere.  One gets a sense that, if alive, the people who donated their remains to the exhibit would be pleased, and proud, of how they have been treated.

Prior to visiting the exhibit, I did some research into von Hagens and his exhibit.  Not everyone is approving of the displays and there have been some rather unseemly allegations by the usual religious fanatics.  There have even been some protests in cities where the exhibition has been displayed.

Pity.  There is so much to be learned and so much art to be appreciated in this exhibition.

The bodies are displayed with intact genitals and there is no overt attempt to hide them with strategically placed hands or fig leaves.   This aspect may disturb the hyper-religious or the overly sensitive who fear “gazing at women” leads to all manner of character flaws or that children might be “permanently scarred” by seeing the exhibit.

Actually, I think the exhibit is appropriate for children.  That said, small children would not likely appreciate it and would become bored (rather than frightened or grossed-out).  Kids, ages six and up, appeared to be deeply intrigued.  There were several youngsters mingling with our group and I watched them for their reactions.

The kids attending were enthralled.  They stood goggle-eyed in front of each display and often asked the physicians and medical student “guides” some very good questions.

These physician and medical student guides were a great idea.  There were placards labeling major organs and tissues, but much of the wonder in anatomy is found in the smaller structures.  These guides stood, almost in the shadows, discretely near each displayed specimen.  They did not offer lectures.  Rather, they would step forward to answer a question and then step back to allow the visitor to appreciate the exhibit in his or her own way.  Very cool!

My favorite aspects of the exhibit were the pathology specimens displayed next to “normal” specimens.  There were cancers and malformations of many kinds to be appreciated.  The only “downer” about the pathology specimens, was that they tended to get a bit “preachy” about smoking and other bad behavior choices.

We spent about two hours inside the exhibit.  It was over far too soon.  The non-member admission price is a bit steep ($20) to allow the exhibit to be widely accessible or to encourage return visits.  Still, this is not an inexpensive display to set up and move around.  It costs between $20,000 and $75,000 to produce each specimen.  Despite the fairly high admission price, this is still a far better use of twenty bucks than wandering among throngs of sweaty fat people modeling mullets at the Iowa State Fair.

Body Worlds Vital will be in Des Moines through the summer.


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