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Exhibition on the Human Body Gets Under People's Skin

A graphic display of specimens arrives in L.A. Is it educational or just eerie?

June 26, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Laker or Clipper? Hard to tell with this basketball player. Not only is he not wearing a team jersey, he's not wearing his own skin.

This nameless, skinless "athlete" has just arrived in Los Angeles from Frankfurt, Germany, to be part of the American premiere of the popular but controversial "Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," opening Friday at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

On display will be more than 200 human specimens, about 25 of them whole bodies, each preserved through a special "plastination" technique and placed on view in lifelike, free-standing poses.

The exhibitions created by German scientist Gunther von Hagens have attracted more than 14 million viewers in Europe and Asia since their 1995 premiere in Tokyo. With each stop, they have prompted outrage and indignation as well as long lines of the scientifically inquisitive and merely curious.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Science Center -- An article in Saturday's Section A about the upcoming "Body Worlds" exhibition at the California Science Center said that the center is a county-owned museum. It is a state museum.

Visitors to the Science Center can expect to see whole bodies and parts, skinned and dissected, laid open to show bone, muscle and nerve, all in minute detail. On display will be cautionary tales in the form of blackened smokers' lungs and clogged arteries. Here is the body of a man, posed as a chess player, his brain exposed. Another man dangles his own skin in one hand, as though he casually shrugged off an overcoat. And there is the astonishing combination of two riders astride a rearing, preserved horse.

Rendered dry and odorless by a preservation process that replaces body fluid with plastics, human tissue feels stiff but flexible, like the head of a drum.

Von Hagens, 59, says that despite its shock value, "Body Worlds" is about science, education and enlightenment for the public. "First of all, it is health education, by specifically comparing healthy and diseased organs," he said in a telephone interview. "Before the exhibitions, when I used to give lectures, I noticed that the cleaning lady and the doorman were more interested than my colleagues. That is what makes plastination different -- they start to identify with the specimens."

To address concerns about "Body Worlds," the Science Center contracted an independent bioethicist, Dr. Hans-Martin Sass, to travel to Germany to review the records of each whole body to be shown in Los Angeles. The center also assembled an ethics committee of religious leaders and bioethicists to review the exhibition and polled the reaction of Science Center visitors to postcard photos of bodies before courting "Body Worlds" for Los Angeles.

The Science Center gave "Body Worlds" the museum equivalent of a PG-13 rating: Attendees younger than 13 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. In addition, a portion of the display, including preserved fetuses as well as the whole body of a woman and her fetus at the eighth month of pregnancy, will be displayed in a separate area so those who do not want to see them won't be caught by surprise.

Science Center President Jeffrey N. Rudolph said it wasn't difficult to persuade museum board members of the value of "Body Worlds." "I honestly believe it's the exhibit with the strongest impact of any that I've ever seen," he said. "One of the unique things about museums in general is that we show authentic things, things that are real. In this case it's something that is very close to us, that has impact for our own bodies."

Even so, the unorthodox displays have won Von Hagens some unflattering monikers: "Dr. Death," "Frankenstein," "the new Mengele" or "The Plastinator." Some say presenting bodies in lifelike poses makes him more sick-minded sculptor than scientist, more entertainer than teacher.

In London in 2002, a patron attacked one of the bodies with a hammer and another threw a blanket over the preserved cadaver of a pregnant woman. In Mannheim, Germany, in 1998, local clergy members reportedly decried the exhibit as an assault on human dignity, and doctors there challenged its value.

With his trademark black fedora, Von Hagens, a native of the former East Germany who says he spent two years in prison for attempting to flee the country, has a reputation as a showman. Concurrent with the presentation of "Body Worlds" in London, he defied authorities and performed the first public autopsy in that city in more than 170 years. To promote his work, he appeared on a float in Berlin's Love Parade wearing a bodysuit painted with internal organs.

He also has fielded pointed questions about the histories of the bodies he displays. Over the years, he said, he has purchased specimen collections from universities and museums, many in storage or slated to be destroyed. "I accept these specimens and in this way preserve anatomical heritage," he said.

Media have questioned whether bodies acquired from German universities or research institutions may have been victims of the Nazis. But Von Hagens said the institutions were required to self-police and remove questionable specimens before he began acquiring them.

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