The Bodyworlds exhibition: “Macabre freak circus or exploration of the human anatomy?”
By Caroline Achieng Otieno
Within my community as in many African communities, death is seen as a great and irredeemable tragedy even when such death occurs in old age. This despite the fact that as Paul Mboya says, “as soon as one is born, his death is also planned.” The reverence with which the Luo people view their ancestors is observed in the “performance of a series of rituals and many feasts for the dead because of their strong fear and respect for the dead.” They perform more than ten kinds of different rituals for the deceased, largely held in their rural homeland in the face of ongoing modernization and urbanization in overall Kenya. The Luos in this regard are generally known in Kenya as a people who are seriously concerned with their burial place, far more than any other ethnic group. The Luo attitude towards their burial place evidently shows how much they fear and respect the deceased ancestors whom they call upon to bless their homes. The community holds the strong belief that if these rituals are not performed and if burial does not occur in a designated place which is normally on the ancestral land, then chira (curse or bad luck) will follow the family left behind.
Due to advances in medical science, there is the thirst for more knowledge and the prolongation of human life. In many instances increased knowledge can be gotten from cadavers of people who once lived but now are no more, before they are given a burial.
However, Dr Gunther Von Hagens from Germany has exclusively developed a system whereby cadavers are plastinated; frozen for all time and transported from one part of the world to the other, for display and awareness - not only for the medical student, but for the amateur, the curious and shocked onlooker. The anatomy and physiology exhibit developed by Dr Gunther von Hagens features more than 200 real, preserved human specimens, including entire bodies as well as individual organs, body parts and transparent body slices.
The exhibits have toured Europe and Asia from 1995-2004, and has been viewed by over 15 million people. The most fascinating thing about the exhibits are that real bodies are plastinated in everyday poses, this is as well what makes it most controversial. There is the basketball player in flight, a ballerina pair, the poker playing trio, the archer or the runner and even a pregnant lady lying down. The plastinates are displayed in the context of science, health and medical education, and create an “atmosphere” of respect.
The key motive of the exhibition is described in the Body’s World’s catalogue, “For the medical enlightenment and appreciation of lay people.” It’s amazing to see different body organs in glass cases, and to view the differences between healthy organs and sick organs; there are startling differences for example between a healthy lung and the lung of a smoker which is darkened by tar. The demographics of the viewers is conspicuous; barely a handful of people with African heritage, but crowds of Caucasians milling around. Pieter Gorcsum from Surinam tells me he’s studying to be a nurse, and his school paid for him to attend the exhibition for learning purposes. He is certain that if it was not compulsory to attend, most likely he wouldn’t have come.
By use of the plastination technique, Dr Von Hagens has irrevocably changed the traditional field of anatomy and its’ audience, he notes that “The purpose of plastination from its’ inception was a scientific one: to educate medical students.” However, the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired him to think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realisation that he had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination. Prof. Dr Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University states that “This exhibit gives the public an opportunity usually reserved for medical professionals. Viewers get a chance to look inside their own bodies and experience the wonder and respect for what it means to be human.” Dr Gunther von Hagens invented plastination in 1977 at the University of Heidelberg, Germany and has continuously developed it since then.
Plastination is a technique that stops the decomposition of the dead body and produces solid, odourless and durable anatomical specimens for scientific and medical training. Many questions fill the minds of those gazing upon these bodies and body parts; the biggest being “Where exactly are the bodies from?” There have been murmurs and concerns that these bodies may have been those of political prisoners from China, whose bodies were unidentified and thus made use of in this way without their explicit consent. Yvonne de Vries of BodyWorlds Amsterdam affirmatively states that all the bodies on display are of people from whom consent has been obtained and expressed their wishes to further the knowledge of others through voluntarily donating their bodies for this purpose. However, the BodyWorlds catalogue indeed states that “though the full-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; some specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes.”
How about ethical issues? How right is it to keep bodies unburied and preserved for all time in this fashion? Are the souls of these ones having no rest but in continual wanderings? The BodyWorlds website explicitely states that “Before the North American premiere of BODY WORLDS, a distinguished committee of theologians, ethicists, academics and medical luminaries conducted an independent ethics review.” The website continues to state that “In the case of exhibits of plastinated human bodies or organs, a special review has to verify that bodies and organs have been donated with full and informed consent of the donors. It as well needs the guarantee that exhibitions are in compliance with laws and regulations, in particular when cultural, ethical or religious controversies can be expected. These recommendations are based on our concern for human and civil right, our high respect for personal choice, and our understanding that sensitive issues such as the public display of plastinated human bodies and organs will cause cultural and ethical debates. Such debates however, are an essential part of science education and of evaluating the role of science and technology in society.”
It is the hope of Dr Gunther von Hagens and his wife, Dr Angelina Whalley that the The Story of the Heart now running in Amsterdam WTC up until June 17th will inspire visitors towards heart-centred and heart-healthy living.
* Caroline Achieng Otieno has a post-graduate degree in International Law - Human Rights specialization, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org