“Blech!” a man said loudly, as I rounded a corner in Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life. Any number of the nearby exhibits could have offended him: Plastinated organs were stacked neatly in a glass case, showing how tightly they fit together inside our chests. A ruby network of blood vessels outlined the shape of a human face. I was loving it. But Body Worlds is a controversial exhibition series, and your mileage may vary.
Cycle of Life is the third iteration of the Body Worlds series to appear at OMSI—Body Worlds 3 displayed in 2006 and Body Worlds & the Brain in 2011. There are currently 18 exhibits—six permanent—happening around the world. Over the course of their 25 years in operation, they boast 50 million visitors. But even as the exhibit drew crowds, it amassed big controversy.
Body Worlds’ anatomical displays are created using a process called plastination—invented by Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977—which replaces fluids and fats in a deceased body with plastic. This allows the body to be posed artfully before the entire structure is hardened. (Anyone deeply interested in the process will want to check out the short film at the exhibition’s exit on the second floor.) Quite a lot of time goes into it—about 1,500 hours per body, according to the Director of the Institute for Plastination, Dr. Angelina Whalley, who spoke to the media at a press preview.
Whalley offered reasons for the anatomical specimen posing, citing Body Worlds’ 1995 display in Japan where people complained that the bodies, displayed simply standing, looked (in her paraphrasing) “a little dead and frightening.”
Around the world, courts have outlawed or heavily regulated the display of human remains (not mummies, of course, because?), but it’s probably not the worst thing to regulate because there have been a number of questions regarding whether or not exhibited bodies came from consenting donors. A 2004 case alleged that some of von Hagens’ specimens were the remains of executed political prisoners from China. Von Hagens, unable to prove they were not, returned the bodies to be buried. Von Hagens insists that his specimens donate their bodies willingly, and there’s a solemn plaque at Cycle of Life’s entrance thanking those donors for making the exhibit possible.
Cycle of Life begins in a darkened hall, lit by morphing images that cycle from the faces of children to elders. A soft, low string arrangement plays overhead, as if to say, this is serious. The show’s main focus is the aging body and healthy life choices, which can give off a lecturing tone, but there’s something lively and humorous about the wall’s placards—designed and written by Whalley—that dramatically label our skin “the silent witness,” and include images of retro ’70s era punks in sections that discuss puberty.
There’s a lot to take in from Cycle of Life. I now know that our kidneys are gorgeous and that fetuses look like dinosaurs (you can avoid the fetuses by veering left at the entrance). I didn’t find one single thing in the exhibition disgusting. Much of it was amazing and beautiful. If previous exhibitions are any indication, Cycle of Life will be swarmed. (Families, there are dicks in this show.) As mentioned, your mileage may vary. But if you’re concerned about these bodies and whether or not it’s respectful to put them on display, it’s certainly not respectful to go anyway and say “blech.”