WARNING: This post is not for the squeamish or those who do not wish to look at photos of deceased humans.
Additionally, there was strictly no photography at this exhibition so photographs have been take from The Guardian (Arterial Man’s head) and the Northern Echo (body slices & dissected head). I’ve linked to their very interesting articles on the exhibition.
I’ve wanted to see the Gunther Von Hagens Body Worlds Vital exhibition at Newcastle’s Centre for Life for some time now. Strangely, my longing came from an unusual source – watching Casino Royale and the scene where James Bond is chasing villains around an older Body Works exhibition, I became rather intrigued by the plasticisation of human tissue, and how Von Hagens and his team manipulate it into statuesque and remarkable poses. So when my niece Jess suggested we go this morning as part of her pre-uni visit up north to see her relatives, I agreed immediately.
Now I realise that spending time in the company of death is not most peoples’ idea of a bonding outing (perhaps a trip to Vivienne Westwood would have been more so!) but Jess & I are not squeamish, I’ve been fascinated with anatomy for a while and she is studying psychology and has at some point to dissect a human brain. This was the softer option of looking into someone’s head in some respects!
Truth be told I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react. I knew there were 12 full bodies on display; I hadn’t realised that there would also be a wealth of plasticised organs, slices of human bodies (which were probably the creepiest exhibit for us), slices of brain tissues, contrasting healthy & diseased organs (smokers really should go visit the lungs…and the slice of smokers’ leg with it’s completely necrotic tissue), beautifully detailed nerve pathways throughout the human body etc. It was very educational (though I might not eat sausage for a while), and I actually would like to go again because there was so much I couldn’t take in.
The bodies and organs are all freely donated after death and are anonymous. You can generally tell which are male & female, and they are dissected and arranged with great care and attention to detail. It’s difficult to describe their beauty, because you are always aware that you are looking at another human, one who can no longer breathe, talk, laugh, smile. But they can communicate and educate – even mundane things like identifying the large muscle that runs from my right shoulder into my neck that ofter goes into spasm and being shocked at how large it is (no wonder it hurts so much!). The dissection techniques that split bodies into 3 separate structures of muscle mass, organs and skeleton are exquisite – though I could perhaps have done without the eyelashes, toenails and navels. Jess definitely agreed about the toenails!
Of all the full bodies exhibited, I was most entranced by Arterial Man. A human skeleton on whom all the flesh had been carefully removed leaving only the bright red outline of the arterial pathways throughout the body, coloured red. It was astounding, both as a work of science and as a work of art.
Finally, you come to a small dark room with a warning. I checked with Jess that she wanted to go in, as it was the gestational room, and if any part of this exhibition has the capacity to distress, it’s this one. Beautifully and respectfully presented, it showed the gestational process of humans in the womb. Several illuminated glass tubes held the tiniest of forms, a human foetus at 5 weeks the size of a pea, working up to week 9 when the child was the size of a kidney bean. We were both profoundly moved by these tiny scraps of humanity. Of all the displays, I found this emotionally difficult to view- and caused me an ethical problem. The adults all gave consent to be displayed; I’m not sure how I felt about foetuses being used in this way as their opinions could never be heard. Its something I will have to mull on for a little while.
I would never push anyone else to go see this – in fact Him Underfoot has been advised not to go because he is a great deal more emotional than me and I suspect he would find it very difficult to process. I am very glad I had the opportunity to see this exhibition; we both took so much away from it. Astounding.