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Vital Signs: The dead educate the living

Guests look at the plastinates and cross-sections in 'Body Worlds.' (Photos courtesy of Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany.)

There’s something about knowing the eyes looking back at you from behind the glass were once alive; it’s far more profound than looking at a model. But for a room filled with the deceased, the mood is hardly eerie. Between the artfully posed bodies – immortalized in positions ranging from “The Lassoer” to the “Acrobatic Couple Performing Overhead Lift” the invisible workings of our deepest insides are laid bare in an stylish tribute to human potential.

Now through April 26, hundreds of plasticized bodies and body parts are on display at the San Jose Tech Museum in a presentation entitled Body Worlds: Vital. Body Worlds is the world’s most popular touring attraction, with over 32 million visitors since it was first presented in Tokyo in 1995.  The exhibit showcases human bodies preserved using a technique called “plastination,” which was invented by the German Dr. Von Hagens – the man who is also the creator of the Body Worlds exhibits.

Plastination is an alternative to the more common procedure of making molds from bodies and parts—plastinated models are partially composed of the actual human or animal tissue itself.

“Think of a steak.  Steak is composed of tissue,” explained Dr. Richard Cone. Cone, a professor at Mills for five years, has a Ph. D. in microbiology.  Cone currently teaches human physiology.

“They treat that tissue chemically in order to preserve it.  Then they infiltrate the tissue with a plastic resin by soaking it in the plastic resin.  Basically what you’re left with is a plastic tissue composite,” Cone said.

The mission of various Body Worlds installations at large is to provide laypeople—non-medical professionals—with a deeper understanding of human anatomy.  Perhaps what makes the anatomical information in the exhibit so palatable – other than the sheer novelty of preserved human bodies – is the artful presentation, which incorporates not just factoids or scientific tidbits, but also quotes from famous writers and artists, video installations, an interactive BMI calculator and placards which read like a cross between a textbook and a hymn.

The exhibit’s first placard sets this poetic, transcendental tone quite eloquently, reading:  “The identities, ages and causes of death of the individual body donors are not given with these exhibits, because the exhibit focuses on the nature of our physical being, not on providing personal information on private tragedies.”

But how did those bodies get there?  Before their deaths, individuals donated their bodies specifically to Body Worlds.

“We do not solicit donors ever. Donors, mostly those who have seen the exhibition, make enquiries through our website or by sending for information. Once they have reviewed the information, those who wish to embark on the process fill out the comprehensive forms. After a review process and upon acceptance to the program, they receive a body donation card.

Photo courtesy of Gunther von Hagens from

They may revoke their wish to donate to the IFP at any time,” Hamburg explained.

Many donors feel compelled to donate their bodies due to the educational nature of Body Worlds.  Cone, too, feels the educational value of the exhibit is immense.

“Plastination is really useful for teaching,” Cone said.  “I think we’re going to see plasticized and models come more into teaching in the future.”

According to Cone, the main reason plastination has not yet become the status quo in reseach and teaching is because of money; plastination is far more expensive than the standard “sculpture” method.

Another element which makes the technical and scientific information in Body Worlds so accessible is the “storytelling” format in which displays are arranged. The tale told by Vital is “the compelling story of how to best defeat life threatening diseases,” according to the Tech Museum’s website.

“Body Worlds: Vital is the most American of all the Body Worlds exhibitions,” said Gail Hamburg, the Director of Science Communications for Body Worlds and the Institute for Plastination.  “It is a motivational and inspirational exhibit because it doesn’t just present the science of the body, but also seeks to influence the visitor to embrace change.  It addresses the health issues that Americans face from obesity to stress to cancer, it shows the diversity of the body human, it celebrates the potential of the human body, and it encourages visitors towards improvement.”

Although there may be a slight element of otherwordliness within the walls of the Vital exhibit, many visitors experienced a kind of familiarity after looking at their preserved, plastinated counterparts.

“I like to think it’s mainly confirmed how I feel about my body,” remarked Jake Hughey, a Stanford graduate student who traveled from Fremont to see the exhibit.  “It’s important to stay healthy and not abuse my body.  I used to smoke, so seeing the smoker’s and non-smoker’s lungs together was pretty cool.”

Although the bodies and body parts in Body Worlds are preserved and, therefore, made somewhat immortal, they still reflect the condition of mortality itself: Some visitors recognized the ailments behind the glass as their own, or as what could be their own if they didn’t change their lifestyles.

“It’s scary what an impact you can have by doing nothing,” said Angela Freemyer, a medical assistant who came with her 8-year-old daughter and husband.

However, while many visitors believed the exhibit encouraged viewers to take responsibility for their personal wellness, few felt the exhibit was shaming, preaching or finger-pointing.

“I think, overall, they’re trying to be positive,” said Ryan McElroy, a 28-year old Facebook software programmer who had driven from Palo Alto to see the exhibit with some friends.

Nevertheless, many parents tried to use the exhibit as a teaching tool for their children. Rhonda Clements, a history and health careers teacher at South San Francisco High, was among the long line of parents pressing their child’s face especially close to the glass containing the smoker’s lung alongside the non-smoker’s lung.

“I have to take my C-Set for my health credentials, so I came for a nice anatomy review,” Clements said. “And I brought my son because I thought he might be interested.”

Many visitors to Vital shared experiences in the exhibit’s guest book, which contained hundreds of comments ranging from “You rocked my body and mind” to “Wow.  Make it bigger” to “Too many penises.”

While visitors’ responses are various, Von Hagens’ intention is to provoke feelings of anything but somberness, the emotion typically tied to experiencing or coming into close contact with death.

The exhibit’s final giant placard, a direct statement from Von Hagens, affirms this aim to uplift, reading:  “Plastination transforms the body, and object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment and appreciation.”