The study of the human body has been taking place for centuries. At one point, anatomists were forced to conduct their studies in secret, robbing graves or bribing officials for access to bodies. Others, such as the famed Leonardo da Vinci had to gain special permission to perform dissections and draw sections of the body.
Most people have never studied anatomy or seen a dissection. But, thanks to the work of one man and his pioneering techniques, the human body and it’s complicated, intricate glory can be perfectly preserved and viewable in galleries that educate and enlighten.
This is Gunther von Hagens, the German anatomist behind the process of plastination and the world famous Bodyworlds exhibits. He’s also presented television shows in the UK on Channel 4, performing a series of live autopsies (these can be found online).
The Preservation Process
Plastination is the preservation of tissues by replacing the water and fats with plastics – leaving samples that don’t decay. Many people donate their bodies to von Hagens (upon their death) in order to undergo plastination and to be used for anatomical studies. It’s a long process, beginning with the dissections and ending with the body being set in a specific pose – but the end results are akin to works of art.
The process has been perfected since its inception in the 1970’s, and it can be used on the smallest parts of the body, such as the tiny inner ear bones or even blood vessels.
(If anyone reading this post has ever done tissue staining in a laboratory, the early stages of the process, namely the fixing and dehydration, are vaguely similar)
This travelling exhibition has been running for nearly 20 years. There are now several different exhibitions around the world, with each one focusing on different aspects of life. At the moment, they’re in Salt Lake City (Original and The Cycle of Life), New York City (Pulse and Destination: You), San Luis Potosi and Newcastle (Vital), Amsterdam (The Happiness Project) and Munich and Hamburg.
It’s an exhibition like no other, and though you are looking closely at human remains, they are beautiful and educational. Each body and specimen serves a purpose, educating lay-persons in anatomy and physiology by demonstrating a point. For me, it’s not macabre or creepy, because our bodies all look like this underneath.
I recently went to The Happiness Project exhibition in Amsterdam and it did not disappoint. As the name would suggest, it focuses on what we do to make ourselves happy and the effects it can have on the body (for better and for worse!). Because I have studied some anatomy and physiology at university, I already knew quite a lot of the basics, but I found it interesting nonetheless. It’s interactive too, letting you ride a bike for a few minutes (very apt seeing as Amsterdam is full of bikes) and explaining how exercise can improve mood. It also goes into details of the negative effects of happiness that can occur from smoking or drinking, comparing healthy and diseased lungs and livers, respectively.
The displays really are like works of art, with each one set into different poses and showing different parts of the body, such as one showing the spinal cords by removing the vertebrae, or another playing the saxophone and showing the lungs underneath, due to the removal of the ribs and muscles that usually cover them.
Finally, it offers words of advice about the pursuit of happiness, showing how happiness is achieved through a balanced life, and that no matter how happy we are, we are always craving more (how very human!).
If you’re ever in a city where there’s an exhibition, go to it! You might be apprehensive or think that it’s too squeamish for you, but it’s enlightening.