Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/23/2014 4:20:42 PM CST

Top Stories

Cadaver art is back!

by Laura Kwerel
Jan 16, 2007


Gunther Von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany,

"Skin Man," one of 20 full body specimens at the Museum and Science Industry's "Body Worlds 2" exhibit.

The snarky media outlet once called it a "touring show of corpses," but the "Body Worlds" Web site prefers the term "Whole Body Plastinates." Whatever you call the exhibit—or its slightly creepy specimens—the newest installment of "Body Worlds," opening Wednesday at the Museum of Science and Industry, has arrived.

Titled "Body Worlds 2," it features more than 200 examples of real human body parts and 20 full bodies.   Of course, as you might know from the first local Body Worlds blitz in 2005, which drew 800,000 during a seven-month run at the Museum of Science and Industry, this is no cheesy Madame Tussaud's.

The pieces' anatomies have been painstakingly preserved through a process called "plastination," invented in the late 1970s by a German professor named Gunther von Hagens. The technique involves replacing all the body's fluids with a liquid plastic, which hardens and allows the body, along with all of its blood vessels, muscles and veins, to be posed in any conceivable manner.

And posed they are, with a kind of showmanship that flouts the requirements of cold scientific inquiry. One body labeled "The Skin Man" stands holding a blanket of his own skin. A young body called "The Skateboarder" balances on his hand, mid-move. There is even one human specimen stretched 9 feet tall, riding a giant bicycle.

Michael Sappol, a historian at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., and the author of "A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America," thinks that it is Von Hagens' flair for quirky displays—and not the presumed anatomical lesson—that makes the exhibit so fascinating.

"People don't go the exhibition and say, 'Oh you know I was always wondering where the spleen was," he said. "I think the draw in a lot of cases is, 'See death.'  And not only that, see the spectacular display of death.  It's completely excessive and extravagant."

Such excessiveness as the tableau of a man holding a slab of his own skin makes some viewers uncomfortable. Gawking at dead but life-like cadavers can feel transgressive, even vulgar.  Death is supposed to be serious and, more importantly for modern Americans, out of sight.  You have that feeling that, as Sappol puts it, "the dead shouldn't have to dance and sing for us."

Hence the museum's great pains to refer to the educational "smokers lung" display, or the comparison of a smooth aorta with one hardened with atherosclerosis. As its Web site explained, the plastinates help visitors "understand how our bodies respond to movement and demonstrat[es] the actual spatial relationships between organs."

"I think people feel a little uncomfortable about it," said Sappol. "They want to see it, [but] they need some kind of moral license or justification to see it."

Ethical questions, such as the informed consent process behind obtaining the specimens, may also make some visitors queasy. To what extent the people on display actually knew they would become the next
brain-exposed man playing chess is hard to, well, get your head around.

Still, most visitors seem receptive to it. In Chicago, the exhibit's huge crowds significantly boosted the museum's 2005 attendance rates. Dead bodies playing soccer, it seems, are pretty hard to resist.

"Body Worlds 2" runs through April 29 at the Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore.  Admission price for the museum and exhibit is $23 for adults, $12.75 for children ages 3-11 and $19 for seniors.  Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult, parent, guardian or school chaperone.  

To purchase tickets call (773) 684-1414 or visit .

How did we get to the point of paying $23 to see corpses embalmed in plastic?
By Michael Sappol's timeline, it was pretty much inevitable.

1500s: The beginning of modern anatomical study. Increased demand for specimens leads to the unseemly art of body snatching.
1800s: Medical museums pop up in America—the predecessor to shows like "Body Worlds."
1930s The idea of publicly displaying bodies becomes "socially vulgar," and anatomical museums disappear
1960s Cheapo gore films begin to revive the demand for eye-popping cadavers
1968: "Night of the Living Dead" flaunts moving corpses
1970s: Teen slasher films take over
1991: "Silence of the Lambs"—enough said.
1996  The first "Body Worlds'' exhibits opens, in Japan, drawing 2.9 million visitors over the next two years.
2000: "CSI" brings decomposing bodies and separated limbs to network television