‘Body Worlds’ exhibit had practical beginning

The physician says she and her husband were not looking for public attention when they set up their exhibit for an anatomical society gathering in Japan in 1995.

What they wanted was to show how their method of preservation, called plastination, could halt decomposition and keep intact everything from muscle tissue to delicate nerve circuits.

“We looked at it as a new tool for college students” who were pursuing careers in medicine and health, explains Dr. Angelina Whalley. It also was a way for her and Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination, to “lessen the mystery” about how the body functions.

Reaction to the sight of four full-body human specimens was strong and encouraging, albeit controversial, so the couple’s work continued and their mission broadened. Plastination contained “the potential to let people know how wonderful and fragile our body is,” Angelina says.

Their original “Body Worlds” exhibit has grown to involve 25 full-body specimens, shown at dozens of venues worldwide. This month the bold and stark anatomy show opened at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Angelina, creative and conceptual designer for “Body Worlds,” was in Milwaukee for the opening. She says the exhibit only is hosted by established museums (such as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which housed the original exhibit in 2005 and “Body Worlds 2” in 2007).

Some corpses strike athletic poses, such as The Basketball Player, whose muscles look frozen in the middle of a fast-break dribble. The Chess Player, skull cut aside to show the brain, appears to be contemplating his next move.

Stances such as these, Angelina says, are less frightening because “they are posed more naturally” and the average person can “identify with what they are looking at.”

The people on exhibit gave informed consent for their bodies to be used in this manner, and information about becoming a plastination body donor is available at the museum.

A man on horse holds brains of human and beast, one in each hand, so it is easy to compare their size. Like other specimens, they are skinned, to expose muscles and – in some cases – organs.

“They have gained life,” Angelina says of her subjects, but it’s also a macabre sort of artwork.

The Smoker, cigarette in mouth, exposes a lung that is damaged by the addiction. In display cases are less shocking examples of the human body’s wear and tear, like healthy vs. arthritic knees, healthy vs. artificial hip joints.

There are vertical slices of the full body, the brain, other organs. Some are diseased.

“We hope this inspires people to have a healthy lifestyle,” Angelina says.

“Body Worlds” has attracted accolades as well as a sense of outrage during its travels. Florida has banned such exhibits, and similar legislation is pending in the state of Washington.

Ethicists debate the precedent that “Body Worlds” sets, and some religious groups argue that the exhibit is grossly irreverent.

In Milwaukee, “Body Worlds” presents other perspectives, through its history of anatomy segment. Corpse dissection was rejected, for example, until the 12th or 13th century. The world is better off today, advocates argue, because tomorrow’s doctors can study human biological systems more thoroughly and completely.

Almost 25 million people in 40 cities have viewed one of the four touring “Body Worlds” exhibits since the 1995 debut in Japan.

The Institute of Plastination, based in Heidelberg, Germany, continues its work to perfect the process of preserving human specimens, perhaps for eternity.

“Our use of a stronger silicone allows completely new views of the body,” Angelina says, and “we continue to work on our specimens, to show new angles” that will better explain how the body functions.

She also foresees development of a new exhibit, to be called “The Human Saga.”

Each part will concentrate on a specific body part, and the first installment will be “The Three-Pound Gem: The Brain.”

“Body Worlds” stays on exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, until June 1. Tickets include an entry time. Cost depends upon the ticket holder’s age and day of visit. It is as much as $24 for ages 18 to 61, as little as $12 for ages 3-18. Museum members receive an admission discount.

For more: www.mpm.edu, 414-223-4676.