Plastination

Plastination Spent the day at St. Paul’s Museum of Science — mostly to see the amazing Body Worlds exhibit currently on display. Dozens of human bodies with liquids and fats replaced by polymers for permanent preservation — through the miracle of modern plastics, these are the mummies of our age. Actual circulatory and nervous systems in exact shape of the bodies they occupied. Brains and brain stems and spinal cords pulled from the skull and spine and draped out behind bodies like capes for maximum visibility of the musculature and skeletal systems that lay behind, as the bodies continued to do the things they had done in life – teach classes, shoot arrows, play basketball, run.

In some examples, bodies had been sliced into perfect longitudinal strips, allowing viewers to compare the organs and organization of healthy and unhealthy bodies. In others, brains sliced and plasticized in place so you could see dendrites descend into cerebellum, out through base of skull, down spinal cord, trace all the way to fingertips. Penises and vaginas in full, un-sexy, functional display (you can imagine the comments left in the guest books). A man’s entire musculature free of bones, standing free, touching its own skeleton as if friends. A man walking with his own skin draped over his shoulder, as though it were a coat. “Winged Man” with all muscle groups splayed outwards, enabling you to see the marvelous intricacy of related muscles. A father with young child riding on his shoulders, mother walking beside, all three of them composed of nothing but their own blood vessels.

A bit of revulsion after first entering, quickly replaced with absolute fascination, both at the marvelous intricacy of the human body (or in awe of God’s work, depending on your leaning), and at the amazing process that makes the examples possible. A few videos online at the Body Worlds meta-site.

13 Replies to “Plastination”

  1. Saw Body Worlds II in Denver a while back. It was as good as you say. I bought the book and was not disappointed with it, either.

    -Jim

  2. I saw Body Worlds in London a few years ago – amazing, educational, and also rather depressing to see how tawdry-looking and tatty all the bodies on display are.

    But I’ve increasingly come to realise what a money-grabbing self-publicist “Professor” Gunther von Hagens is. The exorbitant price of the exhibition (with no concessions) first alerted me, but when I heard him bemoaning the shortage of willing body donors for his shows the pfennig really dropped. How about addressing the shortage in organ donors first before worrying about the inadequate number of people donating their bodies for plastinated posterity?

  3. Dan, according to this page on von Hagens’ site, “Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS has never needed to seek bodies for the BODY WORLDS exhibits. Currently, the Institute for Plastination has a donor roster of 6.800 individuals which includes around 200 North Americans. The already deceased on the Institute for Plastination’s donor roster number 350. ”

    So it seem strange that he would bemoan a shortage of volunteers when speaking and talk like there’s no shortage on his own site.

    But no, he’s not doing this work for charity purposes – he’s like some weird cross between a mad scientist and an eccentric artist. People should not look to him as if he’s some kind of purist doctor doing it all for the love of education.

    That doesn’t really bother me though.

  4. I don’t remember where I read this, but he is certainly promoting plastination as a sort of post-mortem 15 minutes of fame, and the fact that he has 6,800 people signed up for future plastination shows that his promotion is working. I don’t have any great problem with what he is doing, but I think it rather sad that he has such a glut of potential donors when the opposite is true of kidney donors.

  5. Small correction: it is the Science Museum of Minnesota which happens to be in St. Paul – as a Twin Cities native, I felt compelled. I hope you did the Omnitheater at the Science Museum. It is not the same as an IMAX which is just a giant screen. The Omni is above your head and you recline back to watch it. Far superior IMHO. It predated IMAX by many years which is why many of the IMAX movies carry the Science Museum of Minnesota in the credits. They sort of started the industry. I have some restaurant suggestions if you are still there. First is Restaurant Alma on University. Fantastic, but not exactly cheap. Second is Sawadtee in the wharehouse district (2nd and 2nd I think?). Best Thai I have ever had and I have lived many many places. If you want not expensive, the Spaghetti Factory on Washington is a cheap sit-down Italian. For coffee, the local chain known as the Dunn Brother’s is very good if you like strong. Their mocha steamer is just fantastic. I would second the Children’s museum as mentioned above. I noticed you already hit the Walker but the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is also worth visiting. The Walker is modern while the MIA is classic art. As someone who now lives in the middle of Virginia, I miss the culture of the Twin Cities which is vast considering their size.

  6. Hey Dylan – We had been at the Children’s Museum the day before, and were blown away. Amazingly, there’s nothing that comes close in the SF Bay Area. We’ve got plenty of similar places, but nothing at that scale or completeness or level of imagination. Miles’ favorite there was ant tunnels – couldn’t get him out of them! Got in myself to chase him down but couldn’t keep up at Wonderland scale.

    Dan, interesting point on the discrepancy between the number of people willing to donate kidneys vs. number of people wanting to be immortalized as plastic mummies, though that’s a commentary on people, not on von Hagen’s means or methods.

    Sean, ran out of time for the Omni Theater, though I did want to experience it. Bummer. Well, next time Miles will be a bit older, will have more patience for things like sit-down movies.

    Thanks for all the great restaurant tips! We’re leaving tomorrow and are pretty booked (and most of our meals are big family sit-down things anyway). But will be nice to have the list to look up next time. We did get to enjoy a huge and wonderful ribs feast at Famous Dave’s, FWIW.

  7. Hey all,

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Mary Roach’s “Stiff.” It’s the infamous book about the many (often quite colorful) lives of cadavers. She discusses plastination in depth.

  8. Amy has that book, and I’ve read parts of it, but should go back and check out the Plastination bits. I’ll never forget the opening line of this book: “The human head is approximately the size and weight of a plucked chicken.” That’s actually one of the random quotes that appear at the tops of these pages.

  9. Saw Body Worlds in St Paul yesterday, 8/16/06 and found it quite educational and interesting. A question for all that have seen the show. Do all locations have the pregnant and gestation section that is separate from the main display-that was still inside the body world display? St Paul actually had a large fabric column that had printed on it “Spirit” and “Faith” inside the seperate display. That coupled with the Human Body film where a woman was marveling at the growth a baby within her. After the birth she was not shown breast feeding the baby. I know after my boys were born they were hungry and mom was ready to feed them. And talk about the marvel of the body- being able to feed the child with a perfect diet.

    Is it posible the politics of faith is creeping into the science museum?

  10. Long time since I saw it, but I remember the pregnancy display being somewhat separate from the rest, and I also remember something about faith, with a praying corpse and other stuff, presumably to fend off (yeah, right) any possible objections from religious types about the cheapening of the human body.

  11. That display was in a separate area when I saw the exhibit (which was also in St. Paul), but unfortunately I didn’t have time to go into that section.

    I do remember seeing in one of the guest books a comment from a religious person complaining “How dare you desecrate God’s creation this way?” alongside another saying “Thank you for elevating God’s creation in such a magical way!”

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