Visitors to the California Science Center in Los Angeles are getting a close-up view of the human body. The controversial exhibition "Body Worlds," created by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, features more than 200 human specimens. The subject matter may be shocking, but most visitors react with fascination.
As if they were models, rather than deceased human beings, the bodies are presented in ways that show their inner workings in intricate detail. Museum staffers understand that displaying dissected body parts and corpses sounds grotesque, but the exhibit is far from it, judging from the reactions of visitors.
British born Amanda Young lives in Los Angeles, and she saw the exhibition with her young daughter.
"I'm just amazed," she says. "I think it's great for the medical field that people can come and learn so much. And for my daughter, who's seven, just to be able to explain health benefits of eating right and exercise and what can happen because they show the effect of diseases. They showed the healthy ones and you could compare. She could actually see inside. We're always talking about this at the house, but I don't think they really get it. So it was very educational for our whole family."
Jeremy Herrera of Los Angeles had the same reaction.
"It was absolutely amazing, the way they created a sense of realism," he adds. "It was as if the displays could open their eyes at any second. I'll remember this forever. It was just great."
The exhibition begins with locomotive system, showing human skeletons and their surrounding muscle system. Some figures are posed as if performing actions. One holds a basketball, another sits in front of a chessboard and another, stretched out to resemble a giant, is shown riding a bicycle.
The exhibit is the work of a German anatomist named Gunther von Hagens.
Diane Perlov, deputy director for exhibits at the California Science Center, says the professor's displays are not art, although they are often viewed that way.
"Gunther von Hagens is the inventor of plastination, which is a technique by which you replace all the fluids in the body with plastic, silicone," she explains. "And it's flexible at first so you can position the bodies in a certain way, and then you cure it so it hardens. It has stability to stand on its own. But he is not an artist. He does this for educational purposes in order to teach us more how the body works, and also it has health messages, that you learn to take care of yourself more. When you look at that smoker's lung and compare it to a nonsmoker's lung or the corroded arteries with the healthy arteries, you really want to do all you can to maintain that good health."
Professor von Hagens operates plastination centers in Heidelberg, Germany, in Dalian, China, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Typically, after exhibitions, he gets many offers from people who want their bodies plasticized. The body donors for the California exhibit had all agreed to have their remains displayed publicly.
Body parts are shown in every conceivable manner. One display, called "The Smoker," reveals a corpse's skeleton on one side and muscular system on the other. Peering through the rib cage is blackened lung. The figure is posed with a cigarette in its hand.
Diseased livers and gall bladders are seen alongside their healthy counterparts. Ms. Perlov says dozens of bodies and scores of body sections can be viewed from different angles, and each teaches something.
"These cases have body parts and they also show body organs, and each shows something a little different," says Ms. Perlov. "We also have body slices over here, and in the body slices you see some details you can't see in a regular plastinate. You can see osteoporosis, you can see hemorrhages, you can see tumors, you can see things that you can't normally see."
One section of the exhibit traces the development of a fetus, while another shows the process of pregnancy. One display in particular captures the attention of visitors.
"It's a reclining pregnant woman, and her abdomen has been opened to show the eight-month fetus inside and it's quite an emotional piece," she adds. "This was donated by a body donor who knew she was pregnant and was quite ill and did not feel that she would survive through the pregnancy, but wanted to donate her body and the body of her fetus for this educational exhibit. And then Gunther von Hagens got the call and unfortunately she did pass away, and the fetus was not able to be saved, so we have this extraordinary plastinate which shows what the body looks like when you have an eight-month fetus inside."
The exhibit has attracted students of medicine, nursing and other branches of health care. Valerie Wagner of Long Beach, California, teaches pharmacology and is here with some of her students. She says that the displays make their textbooks come to life.
"You know, this is a chance in a lifetime for the students to come and see everything that they're studying about in their books," Ms Wagner adds. "And I think to learn how the body really looks and how it reacts when it moves, when it plays, when it sits, will really I think influence some of the younger kids to think about the medical field in the future because this has a tremendous impact on anybody who sees it. And even as old, seasoned as I am teaching anatomy and physiology for 25 years, it's still really, truly amazing."
Since 1995, the "Body World" exhibit has been seen by 15 million people in Europe and Asia, and Diane Perlov says it has had an effect on many.
"We've had visitor comments that people say this is going to have a profound impact on their health habits," Ms. Perlov notes. "There was a survey after the European show that said 56 percent of the people said that they had incentives to change their lifestyle or to lead healthier lives after seeing the exhibit."
Victor Maldinado of San Gabriel, California, like most other visitors, found the exhibit fascinating. A smoker, he says he may be inspired to change his lifestyle.
"I'm really blown away by it, to actually see a human body, the muscles, the skeletal system, the brain, eyes," he exclaims. "It's just amazing. And it's something that I'm glad I'm here to share it with my son and my relatives."
Professor von Hagens' exhibition, "Body Worlds," can be seen at the California Science Center in Los Angeles through January 23, 2005.