Body Worlds 3--Gunter von Hagens' Life Work
Bill Long 8/8/07
Coming to a Museum Near You...
Almost all revolutions in human thought or action come as a result of deeply felt and very practical needs or desires. When, for example, victims of crime and their families decided that the criminal justice system was really not taking their pain into consideration in the trial and sentencing process, they worked through legislatures to pass "victims rights" legislation in the 1980s. Or, when Martin Luther wanted to have the Scriptures in the language of the laity, he worked tirelessly to produce the "Luther Bible" in the 16th century. Of course, those who lead revolutions or see the world differently from the dominant view in society are often not only ridiculed or attacked by that society, but they often have mixed motives in leading the revolution. Luther, for example, may have led the "pure" revolution (i.e., to bring the Bible to people) against the Catholic Church because he was angered at the way it taxed German people excessively for Roman projects. Neverthless, mixed-motives or even personal problems shouldn't obscure the fact that revolutions come through the posing of simple and insistent questions.
In the case of Dr. Werner von Hagens (1945-), an anatomist from Heidelberg, Germany, his straightforward desire is to democratize science. Well, more specifically, he would like to bring science to the people by showing us how the human body actually works. How does he do this? Two ways. First, he caused quite an international stir in London in 2002 when he conducted the first public autopsy since a pre-Victorian law was passed disallowing the practice. Five hundred people paid $19 each to see the dissection/autopsy of a 72 year-old German man who had recently died. Threats of arrest and allegations of sensationalism didn't diminish von Hagen's energy in doing the public autopsy.
You can see in the public autopsy an indication of the "dual character" of von Hagens' work. On the one hand there is a "scientific" dimension to it--to bring knowledge of our bodies to people in a very explicit way. On the other hand, there is certainly something "Barnumesque" about such an event, held in London's East End not far from where Jack the Ripper murdered his victims.
The Real Issue
But the more important way that von Hagens wants to bring scientific knowledge about the human body to laypeople is through his three successive Body Worlds exhibits. Beginning in 1995 (Body Worlds) and continuing to today (Body Worlds 3 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland through early September), Hagens has displayed about 30 fully preserved human bodies, through a process he calls "plastination," in various athletic and other poses. These preserved bodies have various organs or parts of the bodies "cut away" so that the musculature of humans while exerting energy can be studied.* Though subject to a lot of controversy
[*A 2005 primer on plastination and on the controversies in general provoked by his work is in this article, from the Chicago Tribune. The Wikipedia article on "Body Worlds" abbreviates much of what is in the primer.]
in his native Germany when the first exhibits opened (because of lingering fears of what the Nazi's did with human bodies), and in England (because of controversies regarding the consent or lack thereof given by the subjects of his exhibits before their deaths), von Hagens' work is now being shown in American venues to rave reviews and, as far as I can tell, only minimal opposition. Maybe he has learned from the controversies in the past by toning down some of the sensational appeal in the presentations. For example, one of the "plastinated" figures you first come upon in the exhibit is of a person praying. It shows the way that the various muscles, especially the sartorius and the iliotibial, along with the two "calf" muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, would be "flexed" for this activity. He mentions also that many of the people who consented to have their bodies used were Christians. I wonder if someone from the Church had been "after him"..
Learing the Names of Things
For me the most illuminating part of the whole was not the presence of actual preserved bodies, whose muscles were extended or contracted according to the activities, but learning the names and seeing the operation of some of the muscles. Because I have been an off-and-on weight trainer for 30+ years, I easily knew deltoids, and trapezius, and gluteus maximus and minimus, etc. but through these exhibits was I encouraged to delve more deeply into the body. So, I have a whole list of words which require study now, from the teres major to the infraspinatus to that very important muscle extending from the ear to the the clavicle--the sternocleidomastoids. In fact, many of these muscles would be great words in spelling bees... Since there are only about 650 muscles in the body, the entire collection of them is learnable, especially if it is readily visible in an artist's depiction.
Von Hagens certainly has a flair to him and a desire to confront directly the issue of public autopsies and the opening of the human body for all to see. I think the time for his ideas has come. Maybe his more generous reception in the United States in the past few years signals a changing of perceptions from earlier attacks and criticisms. Indeed, more than 17,000,000 people are now said to have seen one of his Body Worlds exhibits (I think only half of them were there in Portland last Sunday!). It is well worth the time.