CLEVELAND - I see dead people.
They're all around me. Some are standing, others are sitting or lying down. One is swinging a baseball bat, while another, a skateboarder, is doing a handstand. There's one who seems to be lunging in my direction, a gleaming rapier in its hand.
These are not plaster reproductions of people surrounding me. They're real people - they just all happen to be dead. The naked, skinless corpses have their muscles peeled back and separated, their skulls opened to show the brains inside. Their eyes are bulging and their exposed flesh is the color of raw meat, which, of course, it is.
I really should be creeped out by all this, but I'm not, because it's simply too fascinating.
I'm wandering through an extraordinary exhibit of human cadavers that opened this month at the Great Lakes Science Center, located on the downtown waterfront, right next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
"Body Worlds 2: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," which will be here through mid-September, contains more than 200 human body specimens - including 20 whole cadavers - healthy and unhealthy organs, and all manner of sliced-up body parts.
The public exhibition of human tissue is nothing new - museums and science centers routinely feature such displays - but normally the specimens are dissected body parts soaked in formaldehyde, suspended in liquid, and encased in glass. In the "Body Worlds" exhibit, many of the specimens are complete bodies, stripped of their skin and posed in athletic positions, as if they're running, jumping, or playing games.
And they're just inches away from visitors, with no glass or any other partition to separate the living from the dead. Signs warn visitors not to touch the bodies. (Note to science center security: Good luck enforcing that.)
These human remains have been preserved through a complicated and revolutionary method called "plastination," which essentially uses a vacuum force to draw out a body's fluids and fat and replace them with reactive liquid polymers such as silicone and epoxy, which firm up after they're absorbed into the body. The result is a dry and odorless specimen that lasts virtually indefinitely and can be posed in any position or carved up to display cross-sections of certain portions.
In the full-body specimens, the skeletal, circulatory, respiratory, and muscular systems are easily visible, and individual organs are on colorful display.
The inventor of the process and the developer of "Body Worlds" is a 60-year-old German physician and anatomist, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who came up with the technique in the mid-1970s while at the University of Heidelberg as a way to preserve specimens for medical education. Later he founded the Heidelberg-based Institute for Plastination to produce plastinated specimens, or "plastinates," for use in medical schools - and in his "Body Worlds" exhibits.
"Body Worlds 2" is the second generation of von Hagens' exhibits, with more advanced plastinates, which are able to be posed in more dynamic positions. Cleveland is only the second U.S. venue for "Body Worlds 2," which was at the California Science Center in Los Angeles from last summer until late March. This exhibit's predecessor, "Body Worlds," is currently at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, where it will run until early September.
The two exhibits have been very popular worldwide, viewed by more than 16 million people since the first one opened in Japan in 1996. But the exhibits also have generated a fair share of controversy and criticism.
A number of people have been uneasy about von Hagens' mummification of human bodies after death, not for religious or medical reasons but simply as a form of art. Critics and protesters have called his exhibits "irreverent," "repellent," "ghoulish," "shameless," and "hideously explicit," and claimed that they disturb the dead and are an abuse of corpses. A Lutheran clergyman referred to "Body Worlds" as a "voyeuristic event, which violates human dignity."
In London, a man attacked one of the exhibit's displays with a hammer and damaged it.
Von Hagens' response to the furor is an interesting mixture of denial and acceptance. He was at the science center here for a press briefing prior to the exhibit's opening, and he dismissed the criticism as baseless, claiming that his displays have real educational value, even to laymen.
"The anatomy of the human body can be shown in very, very different ways," he said. His displays are merely a more efficient way to present "the beauty beneath the skin," which he said was "frozen in time between death and decay."
The purpose of his exhibits, he explained, is "to educate people about what goes on in their bodies."
Indeed, many of the displays contrast healthy and diseased specimens, so it's easy for visitors to see graphic evidence of the effects of smoking (blackened lungs and tumors), excessive drinking (cirrhosis of a bloated liver), and obesity (the heart and other organs are literally squeezed to death by excess fat in the body).
Confronted with such evidence, von Hagens said, many people might find ample incentive to commit to healthier lifestyles.
At the same time, however, von Hagens undeniably has a bit of the showman in him, a touch of P.T. Barnum. He is sometimes referred to in the European press as a "celebrity pathologist," and he always appears in public wearing his trademark black fedora, an homage to past surgeon-performers who wore hats as a sign of their authority.
Like any good promoter, von Hagens instinctively knows that controversy generates interest, which translates into good attendance at his exhibits. That was certainly true at the California Science Center, where the doors were kept open on Christmas and New Year's Day, and round the clock on the exhibit's final weekend to accommodate last-minute crowds before it was packed up and sent to Cleveland.
Between "Body Worlds 2" and the earlier "Body Worlds" exhibit, which also was shown in Los Angeles early last year, the science center there had more than 930,000 visitors.
At times, the iconoclastic von Hagens has gone out of his way to court controversy, perhaps most notably when he performed a highly publicized public autopsy in 2002 in an old London theater, reportedly the first such event in Britain in more than 170 years.
But there have been darker questions over the years concerning "Body Worlds." One has involved the bodies that are used in the exhibits.
Von Hagens has always maintained that all of the bodies have been provided by willing donors - indeed, he says he has more than 5,000 people who have signed donor agreements, including the director of the science center in Los Angeles.
But he was the subject of accusations in central Asia that he had illegally received and plastinated hundreds of corpses from prisons and psychiatric hospitals, some without prior notification of families.
And last year the respected German magazine Der Spiegel published a story on von Hagens, whom the magazine called "Dr. Death." It reported that he had purchased the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners that had bullet holes in their heads. Von Hagens denied the charge, but returned several of the bodies for burial when he could not prove they hadn't been executed.
With some critics comparing the anatomist to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted grisly experiments on concentration camp prisoners, a scandal earlier this year was an eerie coincidence, linking von Hagens' father to the Nazis.
His 88-year-old father, Gerhard Liebchen, had been directing a new corpse preparation factory for his son in western Poland, but von Hagens was forced to fire him after both Polish and British media reported that Liebchen had been in the SS, the Nazi special police force, in the late 1930s and early '40s.
Von Hagens denied that his father had ever sent anyone to concentration camps, but nevertheless, he removed him as overseer of the multimillion-dollar plastination factory anyway. "I have to be especially aware of the history of my country,'' he explained.
The "Body Worlds 2" exhibit here combines the stark realities of an anatomy lesson with the stylized construction of an art exhibit, which is precisely what von Hagens has in mind.
Among the full-body displays:
● The Ring Man: A gymnast, his bulging biceps, deltoids, triceps, and pectorals are all working together as his body forms the classic gymnast's "Iron Cross" on a set of hanging rings.
● The Skateboarder: His upside-down position provides a good view of the "gluteus region" - that is to say, the rear end - and the arm and shoulder muscles can be clearly seen straining to support the body.
● The Baseball Player: He is captured in full swing, right after he's hit a ball. The twisted body shows rippling muscles stretched on one side and contracted on the other, while the eyes follow the upward flight of the baseball.
● The Walking Man: As he stands poised to move forward, he holds open a generous flap of tissue in front to reveal his stomach and heart. From behind, you can look inside his skull to see his sponge-like brain.
● The Swordman: The body is separated vertically into three distinct sections, showing layers of skin, bone, and internal organs as the body appears to lunge forward, one hand holding a rapier.
In addition to the many posed, full-body plastinates on display, there are a number of glass cases containing whole and dissected slices of brain, heart, intestines, liver, pancreas, stomach, and other body parts. Some of them look like plastic models, but you have to remind yourself that they're the real thing.
Most of the displays are labeled, but it's probably worthwhile to spend a few dollars for the audio-tour devices that are available. And because of the nature of the exhibit - the naked plastinates, being human bodies, are, of course, anatomically correct - the science center recommends that visitors younger than 13 be accompanied by an adult.
During the run of the exhibit, the science center is showing the film The Human Body on its giant Omnimax theater screen. The film looks in microscopic detail at the biological processes that occur within our bodies daily.
Trish Rooney, marketing director at the science center, said "Body Worlds 2" is the largest traveling exhibit ever featured at the center, covering 20,000 square feet. By comparison, the blockbuster "Titanic" exhibit three years ago was 16,000 square feet. "Titanic" drew more than 350,000 people to the lakeside science center, and Rooney said that "Body Worlds 2" may top that number.
During the run of the exhibit, the science center is offering combination tickets with its next-door neighbor, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The current exhibit includes an explanation of the donation process, and even has brochures and forms on hand for visitors who might want to donate their own bodies for display in some future "Body Worlds" exhibit.
Linda Abraham-Silver, who became the science center's president and executive director last year, worked in Los Angeles before coming to Cleveland, and is primarily responsible for bringing "Body Worlds" here.
"When I saw [the exhibit] in Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to bring it to Cleveland," she said.
Like the California Science Center, Cleveland's science museum assembled a local advisory group made up of doctors, public health officials, and members of the clergy. The panel members looked at pictures and a computer presentation on the exhibit, and gave their OK, Abraham-Silver said.
Nevertheless, she is aware that public sensibilities in northern Ohio might not be identical to those in southern California, and that booking "Body Worlds 2" is something of a risk.
"I'll either receive great accolades for this," she said, "or I'll get fired."
Contact Mike Kelly at: email@example.com
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