Looking inside the human body

Gunther von Hagens is a man of aesthetics. That, he claims, is the reason he can always be found wearing his signature black, wide-brimmed hat–because he wants to create his own aesthetic image.

Gunther von Hagens is a man of aesthetics. That, he claims, is the reason he can always be found wearing his signature black, wide-brimmed hat–because he wants to create his own aesthetic image. As an anatomist, inventor and admirer of the Renaissance, he is also very interested in the care and beauty of dead bodies.

Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies opened at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) June 7. OMSI is hosting the exhibit in partnership with Oregon Health & Sciences University from now until Oct. 7.

When you walk in, the first whole-body specimen you see is that of a muscular man standing tall holding his skin, in a single piece the size of a bed sheet, above his head. That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

The exhibit features real human organs and whole-body specimens that have been preserved through a method called plastination. Bodies are displayed in various athletic and other dramatic poses to show the inner workings of human anatomy. In different sections the specimens revealed both exterior and interior parts of the body, and in many cases the muscles and other organs are removed or spread out so you can get a better look inside.

Part of the description for the display of a body positioned to throw a javelin reads, “Both sides of the thoracic and abdominal walls have been opened like doors.” It’s true, and it’s for your viewing pleasure. The closeness at which you can view the bodies and the detail that can be seen is truly incredible. At the same time that the exhibit demystifies what’s on our insides, it strikes awe in the sympathetic viewer. It illustrates how intricate and amazing the human body really is.

There are two plastinized animals in Body Worlds 3, a full-grown camel and a baby camel, both impressive in size. Von Hagens said the larger camel died of a broken leg, and that he and his students plastinized it.

There are more than 200 real organs and 25 authentic full-body specimens in the exhibition. These give visitors “the opportunity to observe the body’s various locomotive, digestive, nervous and vascular systems, and compare healthy and diseased organs,” according to an OMSI press release. Some of the active poses include those of a javelin thrower, a soccer player, a skateboarder, an archer, and a gymnast on a balance beam. The stationary poses, like one of a woman kneeling, still allow for an interesting look at muscles, organs and bones.

The mood of the exhibit is kind of heavy, but thoughtful at the same time. Tidbits of information on the history of anatomical study, dating back to the artist renderings of the Renaissance, are displayed along the walls of the giant rooms. The display also includes a wealth of quotes by famous writers and philosophers, including Nietzsche, Descartes and Shakespeare. Perhaps the most insightful quote, from Austrian writer Robert Musil, read, “Our skin is the traveling bag of our existence.”

Von Hagens developed plastination, a revolutionary method of preserving the body for anatomical study, in 1977. Through the process, fluids and soluble fats are removed from the body, treated with chemicals and replaced. They then become rigid and preserved, and suitable for museum displays. In 1993, von Hagens established the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany.

Von Hagens visited OMSI this week to kick off the opening of the show. At a press conference Wednesday morning he was questioned about the authenticity of the body donors. He assured the inquiring media that all of the bodies in the exhibit were legitimately donated.

“It is very important that we follow the last will of the people,” von Hagens said. “I do it for education. I don’t do it for being important.”

More than 6,800 donors, including 208 Americans, have donated their bodies to be used for von Hagens’ Body World exhibits.

OMSI’s OMNIMAX Theater will show The Human Body beginning June 7 to coincide with the Body Worlds 3 exhibit. The film follows a day in the life of someone completing chores and doing everyday things, while looking at how their body functions to complete each task. Through advanced computer-generated graphics and microscopic images, along with live-action footage, the audience gets a closer look at daily body processes.

Body Worlds 3 is the newest in the series of von Hagens’ public exhibits, which have been seen by over 22 million people worldwide since the first exhibit opened in Japan in 1996. The exhibit has visited 35 cities in North America, Europe and Asia.