Perf. Arts

'BODY WORLDS' cycles back
Milwaukee Public Museum's new exhibit shows the body through human life cycle and across the arc of aging



By KEVIN PASSON - Special to TimeOut 

February 13, 2014


MILWAUKEE - Six years after shattering the Milwaukee Public Museum’s special exhibition attendance record, a second “BODY WORLDS” exhibition has returned to offer another unique look at the human body.

More than 200 plastinates - individual organs and systems as well as full-body specimens preserved through Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ invention, the process called Plastination - reveal the human body in all its stages: across youth, growth, maturity and advanced age, and in all its conditions, from health to distress to disease.

“‘BODY WORLDS and The Cycle of Life’ is the story of aging as a natural occurrence,” said Dr. Angelina Whalley, director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, and the creative and conceptual designer of the BODY WORLDS exhibitions. “Many people will be very deep in thought at the exhibition. They will stand in front of the specimens and see themselves, see how they are made. Many times I have heard people say, ‘Never again will I take my body for granted.’”

Whalley said the exhibitions lead attendees to take a more proactive role in their lifestyle, knowing that 30 percent of their condition is determined by age, but 70 percent is determined by their own choices. She said many leave vowing to eat healthier, and 25 percent will exercise more and 9 percent will quit smoking.

“We are back again (in Milwaukee), because we have developed new specimens, and this theme adds a new dimension,” Whalley said. “Also, you have changed. Maybe you have had a baby, been affected by disease, and you certainly have aged.”

The genesis of Plastination

In July 1977, while working as a scientist and research assistant at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Pathology and Anatomy, von Hagens had an idea.

“I was looking at collections of specimens embedded in plastic,” he said in a news release. “It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens, rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimen from within and literally allow you to grasp it.”

That notion was an epiphany for von Hagens and the genesis of Plastination, his groundbreaking invention where all body fluids and soluble fat from anatomical specimens are extracted to stop decomposition, and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers, such as silicon rubber and epoxy that harden with gas, light or heat curing, giving the specimens rigidity and permanence.

In 1986, with her medical degree from the University of Heidelberg in hand a surgical career ahead of her, Whalley signed up for an intensive course in dissection. The course was taught by von Hagens. They forged a professional and personal bond, and the couple married in 1992.

“I wanted to further our mission of health education, by ennobling the post-mortal body and without sacrificing aesthetics,” Whalley said of her work with the BODY WORLDS exhibitions. “I try to present the body in a dramatic, memorable, beautiful way so that people can learn about anatomy, disease and health.

“I have been able to education far more people about health than I ever would have if I had been a surgeon.”

Record-setting exhibition

The first BODY WORLDS exhibition was held in 1995 in Japan. Since then, more than 40 million people worldwide, including 14 million in the United States, have viewed the exhibitions. There are currently nine exhibitions on display across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

“This exhibition fits perfectly with the mission of the museum,” said Ellen Censky, the MPM’s senior vice president and academic dean. “It’s all about inspiring curiosity. And as for learning, it hits it on the mark. It’s unique and so popular because we all have a body, and we can relate to the exhibition.

“BODY WORLDS 1: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies” was featured at the museum in 2008, when more than 340,000 people viewed it.

“When I’m out in the community, this is the one exhibition everyone always asked about (whether) we were ever going to bring it back, so the demand is obviously there,” she said. “Also, many people simply missed it the first time, thinking they always would come another day, but then time ran out.”

Highlights of the exhibition include:

A look at conception and prenatal development. This area features a multimedia display on cell division and a collection of plastinated embryos and features acquired from historical anatomical collections.

The Artists’ Gaze, an exploration of the sight and visions of artists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, who suffered from cataracts and retinal eye disease.

Centennial Village, a feature on the findings on geographic clusters around the world where the longest-living people live, from Okinawa, Japan, and Ovodda in Sardinia to the Hunza region in Pakistan.

The exhibition will be at the museum until the middle of June.