Body Worlds Vital

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!

Curator Dr Angelina Whalley with the tissue slices

Curator Dr Angelina Whalley with the tissue slices

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.

Body Worlds Vital: a face exquisitely dissected and displayed

Body Worlds Vital: a face exquisitely dissected and displayed

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.

Arterial Man

Arterial Man

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.

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10 thoughts on “Body Worlds Vital

  1. Yeah, the foetus one would leave me questionning too. Perhaps that was the point of the exhibit? I remember reading about this and wanting to go. i am glad to hear you had a great time.

    • We were both amazed at how much we got from it, it’s truly remarkable to see inside the human body and how it works in this very intimate way. I’m still mulling over how I felt about the gestational room, Him Underfoot agrees it’s a bit of an ethical void. I hadn’t know that it was there before I went – and it may have stopped me from going if I had. That said, it was very sensitively displayed, and it really brought home to both of us the perfection of these tiny little spirits. I’m assuming their parents gave permission for their inclusion, but it’s still a bit grey in my head as to how I felt about it. It’s bothering me 😦

  2. Amazing. Where would we have been without the body-snatchers of old. Science will always take us to new levels of understanding how our bodies works. Hopefully for the greater good. Very interesting posting.

    • It was truly illuminating, and we both learnt so much, we wished we had more time. I’d previously read Wendy Moore’s The Bone Man about Scottish anatomist John Hunter, which was fascinating and far more gruesome in many ways (bring on the body snatchers…!) than what Von Hagens has done (there is a complete absence of any excretions such as blood, snot, bile etc – it is very clinically displayed). This display brings his work forward by over 230 years, and it’s quite fascinating to see.

  3. “You’re a better [wo]man than I am, Gunga Din!” I’ve heard of these exhibits, and there is just NO way I could go to one. I have no problem with bones or mummies, but anything/anyone still even close to “wet” is out of the question for me. I can totally understand the research aspects, but not sure I consider this kind of thing as “art”. But, to each there own! I’m glad you felt it was worth seeing, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • They aren’t really wet – they’ve been plasticised so much that it no longer resembles flesh which I think helps when you see them. It’s a grim kind of art, to be sure, but the exhibition curators have worked hard to show the beauty of the human body – the case with the nerve pathways were absolutely beautiful to look at – but not recognisably human.

      I suppose the art correlation that I could draw would be that of the bone churches and human skeletal remains that form decorations in ancient chapels etc – just this is created and aided by science rather than religion.

      I do appreciate it isn’t for everyone’s tastes – my mum & aunty were quite horrified by our descriptions when we met them for lunch afterwards (and heartily wolfed down a huge plate of pasta each!). And hubby really wouldn’t like it for all sorts of reasons.

  4. His work is definitely very interesting. I have never seen it in real life. I was first introduced to his work on the British series Regency House Party, (a historical themed dating show with no real dating because it was Regency! So good!) where he came to show the Regency house guests his work! Horrifying but endlessly fascinating! His work also received a mention in 21st Gothic by Catherine Spooner, who is I think the only real academic who has made a career studying Gothic culture, art, etc.

  5. I’ve been to two Body Worlds exhibits out here at the California Science Center. As soon as I heard about the project, I was super excited to attend. I wasn’t sure how I would actually feel when I went the first time, either. But it was handled with such dignity and artistry that I was enthralled. While you are in the presence of this exhibit, there’s a constant burning to learn, coupled with a fascination as you repeated re-realize that these were living humans. Some, such as Arterial Man, seem so abstract you almost forget what you are looking at… But in others, upon close examination you can see a particularly “human” detail, like eyelashes or fingernails, and you wonder about their lives, the people who loved them, how they died… All while being completely blown away by the miraculous inner workings of the human body.

    I’m glad you had the chance to attend, and that you enjoyed it! AND that you decided to share your thoughts about it here.

    • Thank you, I did find it profoundly moving and I have to admit I was surprised at how educational it was. We both want to go back, but my niece is now back at uni in Wales, so I may just have to take myself – which may be a different experience in itself. It’s been so popular locally that it’s been extended for a further 6 weeks so I have plenty of time. The town where I live has a very good medical school and genetics research institute and is developing a special ‘science city’ zone, and this exhibition is hosted by them. I hope they bring more like this to town, as it’s been a strange but hugely successful endeavour.

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