Yesterday, Stefan and I went to see the "Body Worlds" exhibition, which is currently in Offenbach, close to Frankfurt, Germany. Body Worlds is a traveling exhibition that displays human bodies and body parts that have been preserved using a technique called plastination. Basically, it works by removing all bodily fluids and fat from the tissue by washing it out with acetone, and then replacing these fluids with silicone. That is to say, the exhibits are not anatomic models but actually real. The method of plastination used for these purposes was invented by Gunther von Hagens, then at the University of Heidelberg. His work there likely was inspiration for the horror movie "Anatomy," starring Franka Potente, which still causes me the occasional nightmare.
The exhibition itself was absolutely non-nightmarish. It had in fact a high educational value, and at least for me no yuck-factor. Besides that, it also had a missionary theme, that of documenting and explaining the process of aging and not only the complexity but also the fragility of the body. Besides many whole-body exhibits in fancy positions - dancing, playing saxophone, jumping over fences, during intercourse (must be 16 or older to see that) - they had all organs separately, some showing various illnesses and diseases (fatty liver, cancerous uterus, smoker's lung), as well as artificial joints. Some of the organs were cut into small slices or into half, so you could see inside. It is quite amazing really, to see all the muscles, bands, and nerves. Most stunning I found the capillary system that leaves behind the shape of the body after plastination (see picture to the left, more here).
It is not allowed to take photos of the exhibits. The ones you see here are from this and that url and there's some more on the website bodyworlds.com. Alternatively, do a Google image search for Body Worlds and get a nice selection.
What I found somewhat annoying about the exhibition is that in all of the full body exhibits there were necessarily parts missing for better visibility (or possibly because they were just missing? Who knows what these people died from.) To begin with, most of the skin had been removed, but sometimes one or the other muscle, or this or that band. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to find a detailed explanation of what parts had been removed, so I was sometimes left wondering if there shouldn't be another muscle on that leg or another part on that spine or so. Also, I could have done without the photos of happy 100 year old men water skiing, proclaiming that happiness is the key to a long life. On the other hand I learned one or the other thing. For example, I wasn't aware the liver lies to closely below the diaphragm. And did you know that your testicles are doomed to shrink after you've passed your mid 40s? Or, more amusingly, that two centuries ago it was believed sperm is produced in the brain. Because, you see, that's were the soul is located and how could it be produced elsewhere. (Of course today we're more enlightened and know that the male soul sits in the testicles ;-).)
The bodies that are being used for plastination stem from people who donated them during their lifetime by signing the necessary forms. You can indeed donate your own body if you want to be conserved for educational means. Presently, there's more than 10,000 people who have signed up, and I suspect that most of them will not be used for exhibitions but rather for anatomy courses. On the other hand you might become famous post-mortem on Lady Gaga's stage. Apparently, the Lady has expressed interest in a decoration consisting of human bodies. In the exhibition guide, there's a selection of donors summarizing their motivations, which ranges from a love for science over some sort of immortality to admiration of von Hagens' work. The anonymity of the endproduct's origin I guess sorts out most narcissistic motivations. As to me, I'm signed up for organ donation, in various countries, and prefer to maximize my educational value during my lifetime.