On Tuesday I was invited to attend an Educators’ Forum introduction to the Body Worlds exhibition in the V&A Waterfront, for which Dr Michael Mol was the Master of Ceremonies, planned to encourage educators to send their learners to see the exhibition. The Body Worlds series of seven simultaneous exhibitions has toured 70 countries to date, and has been seen by 35 million visitors. In Cape Town the educational anatomy, physiological and health exhibition has been extended to 10 March, to cope with local interest, and has been seen by 60000 visitors to date. The exhibition lifts the skin to reveal what bodies look like underneath our protective exterior.
One does not know what to expect when entering the Body Worlds exhibition, having read about cadavers and foetuses being on show. I was a little nervous about how I would react to a cadaver, but the bodies that were depicted did not seem to be made from dead persons, but looked more like rubber representations of certain aspects of human bodies. It made a difference walking around a part of the exhibition with its PR consultant Donoven Gloy, and he explained how the Body Worlds’ Dr Gunther von Hagens and his wife Dr Angelina Whalley launched “Körperwelt” in Germany in 1995. To create the displays for the exhibition, the couple was reliant on obtaining ‘body donors’, ‘individuals who, in their lifetime, bequeathed their bodies to Body Worlds for the scientific education of future generations‘. Dr von Hagens invented ‘Plastination‘, a preservation method of a body which reflects ‘aesthetic anatomy’. All the body’s blood vessels, bones, skin, organs, nerves, and other vital parts were displayed separately in display cases, and then can be seen in whole bodies too. Wikipedia explains the technical process of Plastination, which is not explained to one when one enters the exhibition:
“The first step of plastination is fixation. Fixation, frequently utilizing a formaldehyde based solution, serves two functions. Dissecting the specimen to show specific anatomical elements can be time consuming. Formaldehyde or other preserving solutions help prevent decomposition of the tissues. They may also infer a degree of rigidity. This can be beneficial in maintaining the shape or arrangement of a specimen. A stomach might be inflated or a leg bent at the knee for example. After any necessary dissections take place, the specimen is then placed in a bath of acetone. Under freezing conditions, the acetone draws out all the water and replaces it inside the cells. In the third step, the specimen is then placed in a bath of liquid polymer, such as silicone rubber, polyester or epoxy resin. By creating a vacuum, the acetone is made to boil at a low temperature. As the acetone vaporizes and leaves the cells, it draws the liquid polymer in behind it, leaving a cell filled with liquid plastic. The plastic must then be cured with gas, heat, or ultraviolet light, in order to harden it”.
One leaves the exhibition vowing to never smoke again (lungs blackened from smoking), to never eat sweets or chocolates again (seeing the fat deposits around the organs and under the skin), and to lead a better and healthier life, a ‘spiritual’ room advising one on how to live longer (less is more in reducing animal fat and meat; being optimistic; focusing on learning one’s whole life; engaging with the world; leading a purposeful life; meaning something to someone else; eating a rainbow, eating a multiple collection of vegetables, fish, seaweed, tofu, soy and drinking red wine; exercising; and enjoying the curative power of nature via meditation, walking, and praying). Dr Michael Mol, who presents and produces ‘The Dr Mol Show‘ on SABC3, embodies a perfectly healthy (and attractive) body, and he and his family have vowed to live even more healthily after seeing the exhibition. A healthy lifestyle allows one to live longer and better, he said. He shared that he had seen Joost van der Westhuizen for lunch earlier that day, and ‘time for living healthily’ is most valuable. He made us laugh, talking about the world’s oldest citizen, who had lived until 122. If she had to have her life over again, she would choose a good life over a long life, she had said. Our bodies can live up to 120 years, but 67 is the international average, and 54 years in South Africa, Dr Mol saying that many of us are living on ‘borrowed time’. Lifestyle diseases are the killers, and most don’t know they have them, and don’t test for them.
The exhibition is sub-titled ‘Cycle of Life’, and refers to change being the only constant. One sees embryos from as young as 3 weeks up to 22 weeks, at which time one can see the first hair. The skin was described as the ‘most visible indicator to others of our age‘! It also is the largest and heaviest organ, and plays an important role in protecting the body from drying out, protects against micro-organisms, and to regulate the body temperature. Impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Claude Monet suffered from eye diseases in their old age, and one can see what they saw with their poor eyesight, and what they painted. Throughout the exhibition venue, comments by well-known persons are featured in German, with English translations. Actress Ursula Andress said when one enjoys life, age is irrelevant. Sir Winston Churchill probably said it best: ‘Life is like a play. First you play the lead, then the supporting role, then you prompt others, and finally you get to see how the curtain falls’. Dementia is featured too, and Alzheimers is said to be the most common form of it. Sadly Dr von Hagens is suffering from the disease, and his wife Dr Whalley is now running the Body Worlds exhibitions around the world. One in every six persons 80 years and older will suffer from this terrible disease. The most talked-about exhibit is that of a couple making love, and it is designed to encourage awareness of safe sex, and the risk of HIV/AIDS if one is not careful.
One is advised to do one’s homework about Plastination, before seeing the Body Worlds exhibition, a once in a lifetime must-see. Audio guides are for rent, and may be a good idea, so that one has a better explanation than just the labels at each exhibition. A few animal exhibits are shown, forming a larger percentage of some of the other Body Worlds exhibitions.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage