Morbid and educational, two of my favorite qualities!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go see BodyWorlds 2 at the Museum of Science! I usually try to avoid viewing the sequel before seeing the original, but in this case it turns out you can pick up on the plot pretty quickly without missing much. So it was more like Evil Dead 2 than, say, Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, which might have been a bit confusing had you not seen the first one or at least read the book or something.

But I digress. BodyWorlds is a traveling exhibit that shows real live dead people stripped down to their bones or organs. Not only do these bodies show you exactly how your guts work, but they’re also arranged in artistic poses to best emphasize certain parts of the body, such as specific muscle groups.

It’s not for the faint of heart (so to speak), since some displays are rather gruesome and even the most seemingly basic display is given a particular melancholy note when you repeatedly realize that these are the bodies of real people who were once walking around staring at things just like you are. Of course, this reverence for the deceased cannot possibly stop all the morbid jokes that will occur to you throughout your visit. My personal favorite came at the very beginning, when my friends and I came across the skull of an infant. One friend said, “Wow, that’s an ugly skull. Babies look a lot cuter with their skin on.” I replied, “Someone had better let Anne Geddes know, quick.” Sadly, no one else had any clue who Anne Geddes is. (The runner-up joke came a bit later, and was simply, “Oh, he’s an outtie.” This got a much better reaction.)

The corpses have been “Plastinated” by Gunther Von Hagens’ laboratory. According to the official BodyWorlds site, Von Hagens invented the amazing process by which a body is perfectly preserved by sucking out all the water and replacing it with a polymer. That’s the short version — for the longer version, I suggest you visit the site yourself.

There are currently three touring BodyWorlds exhibits, and I suggest that if you live in or around Boston, St. Paul, or Vancouver, check it out.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Oh, man. I still haven't been to see that yet. I'll have to grab some friends and drag them along.

    As cool as real live dead bodies are, though, my favourite MoS exhibit is and always will be the Theater of Electricity. It never fails to tickle me in my Mad Science place.

  2. I have really mixed feelings about that exhibit.

    On the one hand, the opportunity for laypersons to see how people and animals are put together is incredibly important. The stupid plastic models available for classroom use really don’t cut it. Also the idea of showing the bodies in realistic poses is extremely well done. This is a biological educational experience second to none.

    On the other hand, I have real issues about the origin of the bodies. The NYT has run a couple of stories on this. The first (poorly researched) was back last November ( Cadaver Exhibition Raises Questions Beyond Taste ). About two weeks ago a new story , China Turns Out Mummified Bodies for Displays” came out. (TimesSelect subsription required). Some say most of the bodies are from executed Chinese prisoners. I really don’t believe that claim but the legal hurdles for getting a body in China do seem much lower in China than in Europe.

    The kicker for me is Gunther von Hagens, the man who developed the method and runs both the show and the companies making plastinates for educational purposes. Von Hagens is a bit of a weirdo and likes (liked?) to use the title of professor. The University of Heidelberg wasn’t amused and sued. Von Hagens then claimed to have a Professorship at the “Dalian Medical University.” None of this impressed the German courts who still hit him with a fairly large fine for academic impersonation. Then there was the public autopsy in London…

    So is all this an ad hominum attack? Probably.

    Still, I can’t separate this inventor from his invention. He moved his operation from Germany to China because the legal requirements for obtaining corpses were lower. I think he really does want to educate people and he really loves what he does. But at some point he seems to have moved from being an educator to being an egomaniacal fanatic. I would prefer not giving him my money for a show.

  3. What does it really matter that they might be executed Chinese criminals? Is this an apt prelude to the latest blog entry on superstition and Binky the Bunny?

  4. I think the implication we're supposed to draw is that criminals are being executed specifically for the exhibit. I'm pretty sure China has more than enough executions to spare, though.

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