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20 January 2018 22:32 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Body Worlds: Plastic fantastic

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • Life, etc
All photos by Body Worlds.

Body Worlds, the infamous band of merry (dead) men, has just hit South African shores with a new exhibition. Having had 40-million visitors globally at the last count, Body Worlds is the world’s most popular travelling attraction. Is it art? Is it science? Is it morbid attraction? MARELISE VAN DER MERWE talks to the exhibition’s co-creator.

(All photos by Body Worlds)

When I arranged the interview with Dr Angelina Whalley, Creative Director of the Body Worlds exhibition, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect. How can you, when you’re about to meet someone who has made a multidecade career out of preserving corpses and arranging them in various aesthetically appealing postures? This is mummification on speed: ancient Egypt meets the Olympics in a chemistry lab.

Curiosity got the better of me and I Googled her. The pictures revealed someone neat as a pin: always beautifully styled, someone who could pass for a model or actress. A shrewd choice for the face of the exhibition, perhaps. Given the originally controversial nature of Body Worlds, it helps that nothing about Dr Whalley suggests the stereotypical mad scientist.

Google also suggested someone formidable. Whalley’s biography revealed that she was born in 1960. She originally wished to practice as a surgeon but wanted additional training in a male-dominated field — so she is also a licenced physician. During her training she met her husband, the anatomist Gunther von Hagens, at the University of Heidelberg. Von Hagens developed the plastination technique, while Whalley is the director of Biodur® Products, a company that markets plastination formulas and auxiliaries to more than 400 medical schools and universities worldwide. In 1995, she took on her role as creative and conceptual designer of the Body Worlds exhibition.

In person, Whalley turns out to be really very sweet. She apologises profusely for having missed the first interview because there was trouble with her passport; her manner is humble and unassuming, and she is so genuinely enthusiastic about her subject that one feels like a bull in a china shop asking the difficult questions at all. In fact, she appears a little flummoxed that the exhibition still attracts controversy; it’s because it’s misunderstood, she says. There’s something of an appeal in her voice as she explains that she wants people to understand the miracle that is their body, and make the most of it. “It is a divine gift,” she says. “Whatever we do to it matters.”

If you don’t recall the first visit of Body Worlds to South Africa, it’s worth backing up a little. Body Worlds — originally known in Germany as Körperweltenis a travelling exhibition of preserved anatomical models. It marries art and science in the sense that the models themselves do not simply stand upright, but are arranged in a variety of sculptural poses which tell a story. Each exhibition curated and/or designed by Whalley works around a central concept and the designs function to support this concept. When the very first models were exhibited, she explains, people found them a little frightening. It was necessary to make the exhibits easier to relate to, more human. It had to be closer to art than science.

They had not seen a corpse,” she says, half sympathetically. “The exhibits need to mimic daily life. We had to find ways to put life back into a corpse.”

In Vital, a pair of figure skaters performs a skilful lift, a soccer player dribbles a ball and a chess player plots his next move. Once the models looked more like people doing everyday things, and viewers could see muscle, bone and sinew in action, Whalley says the fascination took off.

Perhaps a little too well. There have been objections in some circles to Body Worlds, ranging from various religious organisations citing disrespect for the human body to secular ethics committees disliking the monetisation of displaying the deceased. A 2006 lecture entitled Plasti-Nation: How America was Won by Medical Ethics Professor Lucia Tanassi criticised the lack of process in place for a line of enquiry regarding such exhibits (Body Worlds is no longer the only one of its kind).

There has also been criticism of the sale of plastinates; although there are controls around the selling of some — which may only be distributed to those intending to use them for medical or educational purposes — others, such as animal testicles, baby chicks or realistic representations of human plastinates don’t require authorisation.

In fact, at the beginning of our work there was quite some controversy, but this mostly took place in Germany, where we like to profoundly discuss and criticise,” says Whalley. “Mostly this was from people who had not seen the exhibition. People judged from what they had in mind. Mostly people who have seen it appreciate this opportunity.”

The science comes first. Asked what process they follow to design an exhibition, Whalley responds, “The first question is perhaps why we do it at all. The full body specimens were not specifically designed. People said, ‘They look so dead’. We understood that when dealing with laypeople, the anatomical dissection had to harmonise with the pose. But the pose is in second place. In this exhibition we have a chess player, and it was very natural for us to find a pose that went with thinking. In the last exhibition we had a basketball player that had such big muscles. I did change a few specimens from one exhibition to the other, which helped me change the story. Arranging the individual poses is actually my husband’s work.”

Producing the specimens is painstaking and can take months or even years. Von Hagens first developed the plastination technology in 1977, and has been working on the technique since then, dedicating his career to it. “It has been quite an endeavour,” Whalley puts it.

According to Wikipedia, Body Worlds employs more than 300 staff members in three countries to produce specimens. Whalley explains that plastination is a multistage procedure, beginning with a vacuum process that allows the scientists to exchange tissue for polymer. Each cell that previously contained water is filled with polymer instead. It is not possible to exchange water and polymer directly, however. First water needs to be replaced with acetone, a volatile solvent, and be left for several months. Once the acetone has soaked through, the liquid polymer is added which creates enough pressure in the specimen for the acetone to evaporate. For a full body specimen, this process takes about a year and requires approximately 1,500 hours of labour. The first full-body specimens were created in 1992, a full 15 years after the technique was developed.

The exhibition first travelled to Tokyo in 1995, and has since been hosted by more than 100 cities. Since then, several exhibitions have been created, including Body Worlds 2 & The Brain — Our Three Pound Gem, which focused on the nervous system; Body Worlds 3 & The Story of the Heart (cardiovascular); Body Worlds & The Mirror of Time (which looked at the ageing process) and now Body Worlds Vital which, says Whalley, celebrates the living human body in its optimal state — healthy, vibrant, vigorous and in motion.”

At the same time, she says, it will raise concerns over noncommunicable and lifestyle-related diseases, which are steadily on the rise. “It is our hope that visitors will recognise the potential of the human body, and will be inspired to live a life in good health and with vitality.”

It’s no snooze transporting a major exhibition of human and/or animal tissue. Laws differ from country to country regarding the transportation of such matter, and some of the smaller exhibits, such as the arterial system, are very fragile. One article from a previous exhibition — a giraffe — took three years to complete and required 10 people to move it. Additionally, corpses exhibited commercially are a grey area in terms of legal classification, which means the rubber-stamping involved when travelling can become complex.

Nonetheless, Whalley says donations are picking up, and to date more than 15,000 donors globally have bequeathed their bodies to Von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination after death. Visitors are also streaming in. “In fact, our partners here in South Africa received many enquiries about the exhibition,” she says. “Many people just missed it. When people hear for the first time about an exhibition that shows corpses, they think it might not be appropriate, but the more the word is spread about what a wonderful experience it is, the more they regret they did not go. We are very lucky that quite a lot of schools have signed in.”

For Vital, a number of foetuses and embryos have been included which, says Whalley, is usually the most exciting part for children — “that they were once so small, they can hardly believe it”. The foetuses and embryos are usually donated from very old anatomical collections, owing to an increasing tendency to discard specimen collections as teaching methods change in laboratories. “In such cases we are very happy to maintain these anatomical treasures,” she says. Ironically, inasmuch as Whalley and Von Hagens are the parents of plastination, they are also becoming the guardians of old formaldehyde-preserved specimens in their exhibitions as modern laboratories adopt plastinated specimens for teaching purposes.

Despite the fragility of some smaller items, plastinated specimens are generally extremely durable, and it is this that has made the technique so popular in teaching laboratories. It’s this durability (and therefore cost-effectiveness) that has also made Body Worlds feasible as a travelling exhibition for more than two decades, despite all the controversies and logistical hurdles. “We totally rely on income from the exhibit. Fortunately the exhibit was so successful that it funded itself,” Whalley says.

Quite an endeavour, indeed. DM

Body Worlds Vital opened at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg on 1 March. As a guideline, it is recommended for children aged 8+. Children should be accompanied by an adult. Parents are invited to download the Family Guide from

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • Life, etc

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