Body Worlds


After visiting the Body Worlds exhibit today, my short summary is that it was disappointing, but it wasn’t all bad.

I’ll get the complaints over first. Here’s the thing: I like my biology wet. It’s supposed to be vital and dynamic and messy and complicated, but it all ties together into a lovely integrated whole. A collection of plastinated cadavers is precisely the opposite of what I enjoy about the science: it’s dead and static and distressingly dry. Seriously, when you’ve got a kidney on a table, it should look meaty and quiver a bit and lie there in a nice saucy pool of blood—it shouldn’t look like gray papier mache. It bothered me intensely that everything looked just a bit…off. Like plastic. Yeah, I know, it was plastic. It still bugged me.

Then there were the freakish poses. They were distracting for two reasons: they negated the impression of the organism as an integrated whole, instead promoting a view of them as exploded parts; and they often seemed to be more extravagant demonstrations of the dissector’s skill, rather than helping to understand. Cutting a pair of slits up a cadaver’s back and reflecting the flap containing the vertebral column back so it looks like a wide flat tail with the brain at the end is clever and creative…but it really doesn’t help me visualize the structure. There’s a “look at what I can do!” vibe to too many of the displays.

Some of them were examples of trying too hard to make anatomy interesting, as if just simply exposing the hidden mysteries within was not enough. There was one called “Fan Man” that had muscles splayed in an array around it, like meaty fins and wings; one that was cut apart and spread out in a vertical column, like a cartoon character jumping out of its skin and muscle and bones; many others in difficult athletic poses that contorted the body in odd ways. Here’s a suggestion to von Hagens: pose a pair of cadavers in the midst of intercourse, with windows cut into various places to display the internal arrangements. It’ll be a sensational gimmick! You could maybe even put them in a separate room and charge extra for a viewing.

Basically, I was expecting science. There is very little science to the exhibit. There is a lot of P.T. Barnum.

It’s still worth seeing. I can think of a few redeeming qualities that made the experience a net positive.

While it’s not very useful biology, it is a good learning experience for the person who doesn’t know much about what’s going on under their skin. It demystifies and disenchants the human body a bit—it’s not magic under there, it’s meat. As a card-carrying naturalist, I endorse that message. Informed citizens should be aware of their animal construction, even if they can’t name all the bits, and should learn to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of their organization.

Some few of the exhibits might actually qualify as art. Not the gimmicky ones, or the ones that strain too hard to put their poor dead subjects into unusual poses, but the simple, subtle ones. For instance, there was a magnificent vascular preparation of just the blood vessels of the forearm and hand, floating in a solution. It was incredible in its detail and delicacy. There was a woman, simply standing with arms upraised, releasing a pair of plastinated birds—she wasn’t elaborately flayed, the pose and the dissector’s skill weren’t distractingly presented, and you could just appreciate the beauty of the form. That was respectful, even ennobling.

Primarily, though, this is an exhibit of memento mori. Do not be too proud, and remember that you too will one day die. What we were looking at were the remains of dead people (again, one of the sins of the overwrought poses and bizarre dissections was that it detracted from what should have been an ongoing, emphasized awareness of the reality of these people’s deaths.) I found the most affecting example of this principle was one of the last displays, “Pregnant Woman Reclining.” As you might guess from the title, it was a young woman lying on her side, very pregnant, with the fetus curled within her, and of course, everything exposed and laid open. She was looking away from the carnage, eyes fixed on nothing. It was a poignant tableau, and you had to be aware of the tragedy there—it was beauty and sadness and strangeness all at once.

Making our mortality apparent is a virtue of the exhibit. If only all of the specimens were given the benefit of that restraint and dignity, I would be much more positive in my review.


  1. says

    As a card-carrying naturalist, I endorse that message.

    It’s cool how the appropriate appellation is always there. For another post, “card-carrying atheist” would likely have been used. I didn’t comment on your post relevant to this because so many folk said it for me. Here, I saw “relevance” in action.

    Kinda like you what you said the Body Worlds could have used more of.

    Thanks for the review. It jibes with what I’ve read, and I really would like to see it some day.

  2. Sastra says

    In reading about the Body Worlds exhibit, I can’t help contrasting the situation here with Kennewick Man — 9,000 year old bones which Native Americans tried to prevent scientists from examining on the argument that doing so cruelly violated their feelings; scientists were guilty of dehumanizing their ancestor. The legal argument focused on whether or not the remains was actually the tribe’s biological descendent, but the idea that exhibits or study of the body “dishonored” the dead was respected.

    What a different way of looking at the issue. These people in Body World are recent dead, and presumably still have close relatives alive today — and yet we feel that putting them on display in a museum for the sake of science and knowledge helps honor, respect, and dignify their lives, and ours. At least, I do.

  3. says

    I thought the cross-species message–how similar we and the animals are under the skin–was quite effective, too.

  4. David Wilford says

    Thanks for the advance review, but I’m not surprised you were personally disappointed PZ – after all, you aren’t typical of the audience those who designed and created the exhibit had in mind when they eschewed wetware for plasticine parts. As it is, some fundies have decried how the show is disrespectful of the dead, yadda, yadda, yadda. Remind me to stipulate on my donor card that in the event of my organs being harvested that they not go to any fundies, althought I’d make an exception for those who had living conversions to atheism.

    I’m taking my wife to the exhibit tomorrow, hopefully, and I think we’ll both enjoy it. My wife is an artist (painting) and cares a lot about anatomy, and I think she’ll appreciate the structure beneath the skin more than most. She’s made more than a few snarky comments about painted ponies who if made real couldn’t stand. She’s also the type who wanted to watch a surgeon repair a tendon in her hand, but wasn’t allowed to because of concerns about flinching. She’s just curious that way!

  5. Smart_Cookie says

    For me, the most memorable and poignant part of the exhibit was the poster-size blow up on the wall of one of the donor’s Release Forms.

    In addition to the typical legal mumbo-jumbo, the individual had written a paragraph on why he or she had made this choice to donate their body. It brought tears to my eyes.

  6. Russell says

    The vast majority of the population haven’t gotten past their squeamishness about wet biology. That’s easily forgotten by those who have. But watch, the next time in you’re in the hospital, or that someone on the field or at work is wounded. Take your eyes away from the issue at hand, where they naturally go, and look at what other people are doing or watching. Many of the ones who haven’t stepped back, their eyes will glance, then away, glance, then away, both wanting and not wanting to see.

    That reaction must be largely cultural. Surely hunter-gatherers, who routinely kill and butcher their prey, don’t suddenly pale when seeing a cut one of the hunting party has suffered? Cultural or not, it’s a fact about most in this society.

  7. says

    Hey, an Escher head! It reminds me there’s an Escher exhibit in northern California for a few months, over in Sacramento at the Crocker Art Museum. I’ll have to make a trip over to the state capital one of these days to check it out.

    Probably no bodies there, though.

  8. cm says

    This exhibit and one’s like it really bother me. These were, fairly recently, real people, as you said. And we’re paying admission to see their poor bodies displayed inside and out like they were circus freaks, with horses, playing sports…

    Before you disagree with me, imagine any of your own loved ones up there, plastinated, shipped around the country so people can pay to gawk at you, and on top of it they have the poor taste to pose your corpse in flamboyant ways?

    Why aren’t more people horrified at this thing?

  9. False Prophet says

    Many people are horrified by von Hagens’s exhibits and he’s been called every name in the book. I’m not entirely in favour of BodyWorlds either, but I am mindful of the fact that all human beings in the exhibit were volunteers. They all willed their bodies to von Hagens with full knowledge of what would happen to them.

    I, for one, am grateful they chose to donate their bodies to a scientific pursuit, even one that leans more towards art. While I have greater respect for those who donate their cadavers for schools of anatomy or research or organ donation, I’d rather see cadavers in BodyWorlds than beneath some meaningless stone monument.

  10. says

    I’m mildly surprised that the display was permitted in the US. While it’s not most people’s cup of tea, I’m glad no one tried to protect you from it.

  11. The Valrus says

    Before you disagree with me, imagine any of your own loved ones up there, plastinated, shipped around the country so people can pay to gawk at you, and on top of it they have the poor taste to pose your corpse in flamboyant ways?

    You’re assuming a sentimentality about death here that I doubt you’ll find in PZ or many of the commenters. Further, if my loved ones had requested to have their remains donated to this project, I would think the respectful thing to do would be to contain my disgust.

  12. jbark says

    Many of your criticisms seem thoughtful and relevant, but the one about it not being “wet” is just weird.

    It’s like complaining a book of photos isn’t 3 dimensional.

    It is what it is, right?

  13. CMD says

    Odd. I greatly enjoyed the exhibit, and almost everything you found distracting, I found to be enlightening. Probably that’s related to the fact that I’m a physical anthropologist (and I work in, literally, the driest place for the dead in the world) and have taught anatomy many times. However, I agree that a problem with the exhibit is that it demands a very specific mindset and level of knowledge in order to enlighten or move. All things considered, though, I’m glad I happen to fit the criteria, because it was a great experience for me.

  14. HP says

    Momento Mori

    Remember, friend, as you pass by,
    As you are now so once was I.
    As I am now so you will be:
    Sealed in plastic for all to see.

  15. Steve LaBonne says

    I saw the exhibit in Cleveland with my daughter (I can’t remember exactly how far back that was but she may still have been 12 at the time, she’s 13 now), and I would cut it a lot more slack than PZ does. I can’t say I learned much new either, but my daughter certainly did, and quite enjoyed it. I really thought the ratio of education to Barnum was actually a good deal higher than is (sadly) becoming the norm for blockbuster science-museum exhibitions.

  16. says

    I agree with PZ. You cannot compare the Chicago show with the Minneapolis show because some of the exhibits in the Chicago show aren’t here in Minneapolis.

    I found the exhibit a bit too unreal. I knew they were living people at one time, but if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t necessarily guess it. Perhaps I was expecting too much…

  17. Vitis says

    I saw The Universe Within exhibit in SF last year. My favorite was the “CAT Scan”. It took a male cadaver and made horizontal 1 inch slices from the top of the head to the toes and spaced them out a little so the display ended up being about 12 feet long. The rest of my tour was also enhanced by a UCSF med student who was there to practice his anatomy. Purely volunteer, he was giving the names and functions of everything he could think of and anything people would point and ask about.

    I didn’t really have a problem switching back and forth from science geekiness to “wow, that just looks cool.” I also never thought about the show as anything but an art exhibit. Also, my respect for people that are dead is for the memory of their lives not their meat.

  18. June says

    Likely far fewer people would go if the meaty quivery organs were on display, and what good is at attempt at science education if no one comes to see it? I’m curious about why you expected vital? Death is decidedly… nonvital.

    I have a biology PhD, too (mol bio, specifically yeast genetics), and I was glad to have an opportunity to see cut apart humans in real life without having to cut them apart myself. My last anatomy class was as a junior in college, and the only whole-body dissection I performed was on a fetal pig named Happy. Looking at the women on display, I was frankly surprised by the tiny size of the nonpregnant uterus.

  19. ChaNce says

    I attended Body Worlds in Houston. I was not bothered at all with the lack of “wet” biology, as 99% of the people who go to Body Worlds most likely have little biology past high school. I would much rather have 99% percent of the the attendees experience the wonder and beauty of our anatomy (presented in a non-traditional way) than have that 99% be bored or disgusted with repeated viewings of squishy, bloody body parts. Part of the appeal of the Body Worlds paradigm is the novelty of the presentation, and the ease with which the casual observer gets past the “grossness” of real biology and spends more time contemplating the mechanics of the human form. It took my wife and mother-in-law about 5 minutes.

    Of course, nothing in Republican-Hell-Texas is ever easy. At the information kiosk situated two-thirds of the way through the exhibit, I noticed a well-thumbed exhibit book opened to the “Pregnant Woman Reclining” page (by the way, if you do see the exhibit, the 25$ for this book is well worth it. Lots of great information). I asked the young woman manning the kiosk where that particular exhibit was.

    She answered, in a voice unmistakably tinged with resigned regret, “It was supposed to be here, but was cancelled at the last minute due to ‘cultural concerns'”.

    The religious right decided that a city of 3.5 million people couldn’t view the exact anatomy that created (in the mechanical sense) every single one of us. So they pressured the Houston Museum of Natural History to not include the exhibit.

    There were exactly two fetuses in the exhibit: one completely removed from the womb, and one hidden in a womb with an emphasis on the placenta.

  20. says

    This is coming to Boston in a few weeks — I appreciate the preview.

    At least this has more science value than the last few sensationalist installations we’ve had at the MOS in Boston — while I enjoyed the “Lord of the Rings” exhibit, and had some pleasure in “Star Wars,” the former was far more suited for an art museum, and the latter had minimal science and was more about gawking at props. “Body Worlds” has, whatever its faults, some scienciness (if I can borrow from Stephen Colbert), in that it shows the inner workings of the body, however peculiarly.

  21. Respectful Dissent says

    I saw a version of the exhibit three years ago. To the layman, PZ, it can be life-changing, for the reason you yourself cite: it forces most of us, who have never taken an anatomy class, to think about what’s inside us. The demystification is extremely valuable. Some of the poses are overly hokey and they try too hard, plus there are some rumors about Chinese non-volunteer cadavers, but on the whole, I found it very affecting.

  22. Andy Groves says

    I’ve seen the show in Los Angeles, and with my in-laws in Philadelphia. While I agree with your point about the difference between plastic tissue and fresh oozing tissue, I think it served as an excellent educational tool for lay people. I was impressed by the diversity of the people at each exhibit, and how interested everyone seemed to be. For me, the highlights of the exhibit were the blood vessel fill of the forearm and hand – you really get an impression of how the vascular system permeates our bodies – and the horse and rider. Just stunning.

  23. monstruoso says

    I am looking forward to see the exhibit; I have never had the privilege of attending a dissection. I think seeing the anatomy within in three dimensions would enrich my own artwork, not to mention expand my own mental horizons.

    The closest thing to the Body exhibit I’ve seen is a catalogue of the incredible Museo La Specola in Florence; the figures are mostly wax, and the history of the collection is itself fascinating.

    As for wet… well, I think I should see it, if only to more fully appreciate the wonder of our Machine, although I’d probably need some time to acclimate to all the goo and stuff.

  24. monstruoso says

    I am looking forward to see the exhibit; I have never had the privilege of attending a dissection. I think seeing the anatomy within in three dimensions would enrich my own artwork, not to mention expand my own mental horizons.

    The closest thing to the Body exhibit I’ve seen is a catalogue of the incredible Museo La Specola in Florence; the figures are mostly wax, and the history of the collection is itself fascinating.

    As for wet… well, I think I should see it, if only to more fully appreciate the wonder of our Machine, although I’d probably need some time to acclimate to all the goo and stuff.

  25. says

    As for wet… well, I think I should see it, if only to more fully appreciate the wonder of our Machine, although I’d probably need some time to acclimate to all the goo and stuff.

    You’d probably acclimate to the goo pretty quickly after the initial frisson; it’s got lots of fascinating and wonderful aspects.

    It’s the smell that would really drive down box-office receipts (although to be fair, nowhere near as much as a wet “Body Worlds 2: Our Friend The Dogfish Shark” would).

  26. says

    I, too, was at the exhibit yesterday. I found it interesting, although there were things I would have liked to see (PZ’s sex idea, for example). It was good to see that one can still be an organ donor before being plasticated.

    My favorite part was probably the thin slices of obese guy vs. skinny guy, but the blood vessals shown in all of their glory was great too.

  27. monstruoso says

    There is a beautiful cross section drawing of a pair of lovers in the midst of coitus by Leonardo, although his notes evidence a strange disgust for the proceedings, especially considering the powers of observation he brings to bear on this, and so many subject.

    hmmm… goooo… perhaps I would get acclimated, even to the smell; I think this business of opening up a body to study it has a kind of heroism to it which astonishes and humbles me.

  28. says

    The Visible Human Project is a much more virtuoso digitized attempt to show a single human body (an executed Australian convict who agreed to the idea). I’ve never wuite been able to get into it but it seems like quite an accomplishment.