Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2007
By Katie Scarvey
CHARLOTTE ó Sometimes, when visitors to Body Worlds see the blackened lungs of a smoker, they leave their cigarette packs right on the exhibit case, says Dr. Angelina Whalley.
Whalley is the conceptual planner and creative designer of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, which opened last Thursday at Discovery Place and continues through Oct. 28. Worldwide, more than 22 million people have seen the exhibit since 1996.
John Mckay, president of Discovery Place, said during a media preview of the exhibit Wednesday that he expects Body Worlds attendance to surpass that of the blockbuster Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit ó which attracted more than 222,000 visitors.
The bodies in the exhibit have undergone a preservation process called plastination. Some are posed ó playing chess, teaching, smoking a cigarette, doing gymnastics or playing basketball (the basketballer, we learn from a placard, is “the most muscular body donor plastinated so far.”) Some of the posed specimens are entire bodies; some donors show up in fragments ó a joint, a bone, an enlarged spleen, a diseased liver.
In a culture that tends to deny death or at least keep it as far removed from the living as possible, the popularity of Body Worlds is rather remarkable, though the exhibit has had its detractors.
Designers of the exhibit have taken pains to keep Body Worlds out of the realm of carnival freak show and place it squarely in the Renaissance tradition of exalting the human body for its complex and intelligent design.
If they didn’t already know it, visitors will learn that Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci were so driven to learn the secrets of human anatomy that they sometimes resorted to robbing graves to acquire corpses to dissect. The Renaissance public was fascinated as well, as evidenced by the existence of anatomical theaters, where public dissections were popular.
The idea for plastination was engendered in 1977, when von Hagens was examining anatomical specimens embedded in plastic.
He began to consider the possibility of plastic being pushed into the cells of the body. In 1981, the idea was patented; the body donation program began in 1983, with donors understanding that their bodies would be preserved using von Hagens’ revolutionary techniques.
In the plastination process, all bodily fluids and soluble fats are replaced with reactive resins and elastomers, such as silicon rubber and epoxy, through vacuum-forced impregnation. After curing, specimens become rigid and permanent “for didactic eternity,” according to von Hagens, whose current interest is designing an anatomy curriculum in this country that will use plastinated specimens in place of dissection.
Body Worlds offers not only basic anatomical information about the healthy body but unvarnished glimpses at the body gone awry through disease or congenital health problems.
Visitors often zero in on parts of the body they have a personal interest inó whether it’s a knee that’s been replaced or a stomach ravaged by an ulcer.
Mckay said he found himself drawn to the cardio part of the exhibit ó which includes specimens of both healthy and diseased hearts and lungs ó because he has survived a heart attack.
Dr. James McDeavitt of Carolinas Medical Center said that although he’s studied anatomy for many years, Body Worlds prompted him to look at the human body in a different way.
Like Whalley, he sees the exhibit as an educational tool to help motivate people to have more respect for their physical selves.
“The better you understand it, the more likely you are to take care of it,” he said, adding that viewing the visit could “potentially be life-changing.”
The largest, most dramatic specimen in the exhibit is “The Rearing Horse and Rider.”
The hideless horse ó based on a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci ó is straddled by a skinless man, who holds the horse’s small brain in one hand and his own larger brain in the other.
Although Body Worlds has sometimes attracted criticism, Whalley said controversy is typically generated from people who haven’t actually seen the exhibit.
Organizers have worked to defuse what is potentially the most disturbing part of the exhibit ó which features embryos and fetuses in various stages of development, as well as a mother with an 8-month-old fetus still in utero. A staff member is stationed at the entrance of this part of the exhibit to explain what visitors are about to see.
“We want to give people the choice whether to see it or not, but I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen it,” said Whalley, who called the exhibit “emotionally touching.”
Visitors who take in the exhibit’s written material will learn some fascinating facts. For example, while the brain makes up only two percent of the body’s weight, it requires 20 percent of the body’s blood supply.
But it’s the dramatic glimpses of what lies beneath our cloaks of skin ó whether it’s beautiful sheaths of ropy muscles or the lacy blooming of miles of blood vessels ó that will stay with visitors, who may never think the same way about their bodies again.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or email@example.com. WHAT: Body Worlds
WHEN: Now through Oct. 28. Tickets are by timed entry only, though you may stay in the exhibit as long as you choose. Tickets are available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday-Wednesday or 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The exhibit will remain open for up to two hours after the last timed ticket entry.
WHERE: Discovery Place, 301 N. Tryon St.
ADMISSION: Tickets to Discovery Place and Body Worlds are $22 for adults, $16 for ages 6-13, $8 for ages 2-5, free for children under 2, $18 for students with ID and seniors 60 or over. Children age 13 and younger must be with a responsible adult.
DETAILS: 866-488-2639 or www.discoveryplace.org.